I mostly avoid the “frequently misused expressions” subgenre of writing advice. But for you, I’ll make an exception. This week I want to talk about the frequently misused expression “begging the question” — not because its misuse is a particular pet peeve, but because its proper use speaks to an important concept.

Usually when people use the phrase “this begs the question,” they mean something like “this brings up the question…” or “here is a question that begs to be answered…” As in, “This begs the question: why was your dog even IN a piano bar at 1am?”

This misuse of the phrase, by the way, is perfectly understandable. “Begging the question” ought to mean something like “here’s a question that ought to be answered.” That makes more sense than what the phrase originally meant (more on that later). Nevertheless, we ought to talk about what the phrase originally meant.

The phrase “begging the question” originally referred to a logical fallacy in which one takes for granted the conclusion one is supposedly trying to prove. It’s a kind of circular reasoning.

One day my neighbor’s dog came into my yard and killed my kitten right in front of my eyes. I went to my neighbor and said, “Your dog just killed my kitten. I watched the whole thing.” My neighbor said, “That’s not possible. My dog is a good, sweet dog. She couldn’t have killed your kitten.”

This is what is known as begging the question. My neighbor believed that her dog didn’t have it in her to kill a kitten, so she ignored an eyewitness account to the contrary. Allow me to say that the dog in question was indeed a good, sweet dog. Except for that one time she killed my kitten, she was one of the most pleasant dogs I’ve ever known. 

Question-begging can be hard to recognize when the question-begger agrees with you. Consider the following pair of question-begging statements. Some of you might be inclined to agree with the first statement and some of you might be inclined to agree with the second statement. But when you put them side-by-side, you can see that, in strictly logical terms, one can’t be more logical than the other:

  1. If left to their own devices, children would be good, because human beings are naturally good.
  2. If left to their own devices, children would be bad, because human beings are naturally bad.

One of these statements might be true, but argument by question-begging doesn’t help us establish the truth or convince anyone who disagrees. (Question-begging can, however, be helpful if you are preaching to the choir and/or gathering a following of people who agree with you.) 

A kind of reverse question-begging is especially helpful for conspiracy theorists: You say you aren’t a lizard-person in disguise? Isn’t that exactly what a lizard-person in disguise would say in this situation?

A related logical fallacy is the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, which works according to this pattern:

Interlocutor 1: No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
Interlocutor 2: My Uncle Tavish is a Scotsman. He puts sugar on his porridge.
Interlocutor 1: Then your Uncle Tavish isn’t a true Scotsman.

These logical fallacies (and perhaps all logical fallacies) are important tools of confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret all evidence as a confirmation of one’s pre-existing ideas or theories. That’s a much larger issue than I can tackle in this letter, but the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject is How to Think, by Alan Jacobs.

A final note for pedants:
I mentioned above that the “misuse” of the phrase “begging the question” makes more sense than the “correct” use. If you’re feeling smug for knowing what begging the question really means, I’ve got some troubling news for you. It seems that the English phrase “begging the question” is a mistranslation of a Latin phrase that was itself a mistranslation of a Greek phrase by which Aristotle simply meant “assuming the conclusion.” Mark Liberman called it “a cavalcade of misleading translations.” If you’re interested in the linguistic ins and outs, here is Liberman’s article on the subject.

Which brings up an interesting point. (Congratulate me: I resisted the temptation to say “Which begs the question.”) When people get language wrong, they usually get it wrong because they are too logical, not because they are illogical. Those of us who know the original meaning of “begging the question” might congratulate ourselves, but there’s some irony in the fact that we are congratulating ourselves on having memorized a mistranslation of a mistranslation. 

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