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Begging the Question vs. Raising the Question: Understanding a commonly misused phrase

Updated on September 29, 2011
Funny movie.  Anne Hathaway is hawtness. (
Funny movie. Anne Hathaway is hawtness. (

How to Use "Begging the Question"

(If you're in a big hurry for the basics here, skip down to the section entitled "It has nothing to do with wanting another question.")

I watched the recent movie version of Get Smart last night, and early on the character of Maxwell Smart used the phrase "begs the question" wrong. I see this all the time and, being the pedantic piece of crap that I am, I cringed a little on the inside.

I realize that that character is supposed to be funny, but the context and delivery of the line were clearly not intended as humor, which means, or at least suggests, that the writers themselves don't understand the proper usage either. Now, I realize that language changes - I've covered this evolving language thing several times before in other articles on grammar - but the speed with which some errors rocket towards common acceptance is startling. What's worse, as misuse becomes quickly "established" on the Internet, the original meanings are lost. This is a problem, because when there are no words to describe an idea, often that idea becomes lost or, perhaps redundantly, indescribable. If there is no term or phrase to encompass an idea, how do we contemplate it and examine it, or even call it out.

Try to fathom this sonnet without knowing what "love" means in the few places W.S. uses it.

Love Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments; love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O, no, it is an ever-fixèd mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand'ring bark,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, or no man ever loved.

--William Shakespeare

A Matter of Meaning

An example of this is "love." I want you to imagine writing or talking about "love" for a moment without actually using the word "love" (this includes foreign words for love, or slang terms for love.) Try to talk about it without the word for it. Describe your feelings for your spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, or even your children without using it. Go ahead and try.

The very best you can do will be to write or speak out something very, very long and complicated. It will take you a ton of words to encompass the whole idea. Which is exactly why there is a word that came about in language to embody the idea, a code if you will, a symbol basically to neatly hold together a rather large idea. Imagine how useless the word "love" would be if somehow through regular misuse on the Internet the word became synonymous with only "sex." If through constant and endless repetition "love" was used in place of "sex" eventually the romantic, eternal, devoted and caring aspects that we think of now would erode. "I love you" eventually becomes "I want to bone you" or "I hump you with some regularity."

If that happened, the idea of love as we know it is lost. If someone said, "My grandfather loved my grandmother for seventy-five years," it wouldn't mean the same thing anymore. I mean, sure, they probably did the nasty many times over the course of seventy-five years, but let's be honest, that's clearly not what is meant by what was originally said. Either a new word would have to be devised and then spread around and eventually universally accepted as the new "language symbol" to embody the love we know and think of now, or the concept becomes muddy again, lost as a defined and encoded complexity and subject to long-winded attempts to describe it thoroughly each time anyone wants to talk about it again.

There is a word for this that goes beyond "ancestral skull," involving meaning, use, context and cultural history.  We don't know it, because we have no cultural relevance for it, no recurrent need.  That is why there is no word translation for this
There is a word for this that goes beyond "ancestral skull," involving meaning, use, context and cultural history. We don't know it, because we have no cultural relevance for it, no recurrent need. That is why there is no word translation for this

Language is a Tool to Encapsulate Ideas

I read once that a culture that has no word for something has no concept of or need for the thing for which they have no word. An example of this is easy to give. Think of the term "microwave oven." You know what that is, right? Because it has relevance to you. Now, find some tribesman in the deep jungles of Brazil or some other remote region of the world. How much talking would you have to do before you could give that word any meaning for him. He damn sure doesn't have a word for it. And he has no need of one.

The same works in reverse. Do you have a word to describe the oldest male ancestor in your family who has died and whose skull you have boiled the tissue from and, after a long and complicated religious ceremony to inscribe symbols on it, you wear around your neck sometimes to ward off dangerous spirits or curry favor from the gods? Ah, you don't, eh? The rainforest man does. It's a nonsense word for you, but for him it is short, precise and straight to the point.

So, with all that said, I can get back to my point about "begging the question."

It Has Nothing to Do With Wanting Another Question

People these days (like in the Get Smart movie) commonly use the phrase "begging the question" or "begs the question" to mean that one original idea raises an obvious follow-up question. Here's an example:

Original idea: Out of three hundred girls, not one would dance with Christoph Reilly.

Obvious Follow-up Question: "Why wouldn't they dance with him?" OR "What is wrong with Christoph Reilly?"

SO, what happens all too often in modern English is someone will say something like this:

Gosh, those girls just blew Christoph Reilly off. That really begs the question, 'what did he do wrong?'


Sure we want to know why the girls are being so mean, but wanting to know why is NOT "begging the question" as to why.
Sure we want to know why the girls are being so mean, but wanting to know why is NOT "begging the question" as to why.

Now, here's where the whole thing gets messed up. The reasoning behind wanting to ask these questions is not wrong. It is quite obvious to want to follow up information about Christoph Reilly. We immediately come up with questions in our head regarding his being unable to find a dance partner amongst three hundred women. In fact, it is even fair in metaphorical language to suggest that such a circumstance might beg for an answer to the questions that arise. However, the phrase "begs the question" DOES NOT APPLY HERE even though it might make sense on the surface of the words.

The situation of Christoph and those non-dancing women RAISES the question: "Why won't they dance with him?" But it does not BEG the question as it pertains the established, encoded meaning of the phrase "begging the question."

“To Beg the Question” refers to a Specific Idea.

The phrase "begging the question" is a phrase akin to the word "love" as we discussed at first. "Begging the question" is an old language symbol, if you will allow this idea, and it is meant to apply to an argumentative fallacy that is circular in nature. Here's an example:

All chicks should try to get with Shadesbreath because Shadesbreath is totally awesome and chicks dig him.

Now THAT is a statement that "begs the question." Notice there is no actual question in this statement. It is a declaration. That statement is made as if it were a claim supported by a "fact." Here, let's break it down:

Statement/Claim: All chicks should try to get with Shadesbreath

Reasons or support for claim: Because Shadesbreath is totally awesome and chicks dig him.

Chicks Dig Shadesbreath.

Women SHOULD want to be with Shadesbreath is a true statement, BUT, just saying it isn't enough logically.
Women SHOULD want to be with Shadesbreath is a true statement, BUT, just saying it isn't enough logically.

The problem with that statement and support is that the support for the claim assumes the claim as its reasoning. How can I say that women should want to be with me and then go on to support that claim by saying that the reason women should want to be with me is because women want to be with me? In essence, that's what the above claim says, like this:

Women should want to be with Shadesbreath because women want to be with Shadesbreath.

THAT is "begging the question."

Now, not all examples of that are so cut and dry. Sometimes they are a great deal muddier, which is why "begging the question" is such a common practice in argument; it's easy to fool people with this kind of argument. Let's look at a couple of more complex examples.

Coors Light is awesome, by the way.
Coors Light is awesome, by the way.

Example 1:

You should not drink Coors Light because it is a crappy beer.

Claim: You should not drink Coors Light.

Reasoning: Because it is crappy.

The word "crappy" here is meant to invoke the idea of things that one should not drink, right? I mean, who wants to drink something that is crappy? So basically, the word "crappy" is a stand-in for the idea of "things that should not be drunk."

Which means, in essence the statement in Example 1 really says: You should not drink Coors Light because it is a beer you should not drink.

It "begs the question."

Until actual reasons are given for why Coors Light is crappy, that statement is a logical fallacy. Now, if you say "You should not drink Coors Light because it has a low alcohol content compared to other beers," well, now you've made an argument that can be said to have grounds in something other than repeating the original phrase. While the statement assumes a value in higher alcohol content over lower, which can be debated, the logic of the statement is not relying on the idea of "you should not drink it" to support the idea of "things you should not drink."

We've heard similar logic before.
We've heard similar logic before.

Example 2:

We should bomb Iran before they bomb us first.

Claim: We should bomb Iran.

Support: before they bomb us first.

Assumption: They are going to bomb us first.

The assertion that "we" should act to bomb "them" relies on the belief that "they" are going to do to us what we are going to do to them. This is a perfect example of a "circle" in circular logic. If you take out the Iran and exchange it with a pronoun, the sentence reads like this:

We should bomb them before they bomb us.

Now, could it not be said that either side could write this sentence? Clearly it can. And where in that sentence is there any actual evidence or support for the claim, regardless of who says it? Emotionally this sentence might make sense, but it actually has no logical ground. The reason for us bombing them is the exact same reason they have for bombing us. Which means either both parties have a reason for bombing each other, neither party has a reason for bombing each other, or maybe one side does and the other side doesn't but there is no evidence to support a claim. In other words, this statement actually doesn't say anything. It is begging the question. In essence, it's begging of itself, the idea saying, "Believe what I say because I'm the one saying it."

THIS is raising a question.
THIS is raising a question.

Raising a Question

In a nut-shell, the idea of "begging the question" is not about begging for a new question or a follow up question. That idea is better embodied by the idea of "raising a question." Example:

Rumors of nuclear technology being developed in Iran raises the question of whether or not we should consider a preemptive strike.

Now, regardless of your opinion on how this plays out in reality, there is a logic to this statement. Those rumors of nuclear technology DO raise the question of "should we do something or not?" So, that is a true and reasonable statement. The question is "raised." However, the question is not "begged" in the established sense of terms used to describe certain types of logical fallacies.

The mistake (the difference) seems minor. And as I said before, the idea of one concept "begging" a secondary follow up question is not hard to recognize, and it is certainly easy to see how the original logic-related phrase "begging the question" has come to be misunderstood and misused. However, the phrase really does mean something very distinct in terms of argument and debate: it's a form of rhetorical device that is used to mislead. If we allow the term to vanish into the sea of eroding clarity that the Internet has underway, many important ideas will become more and more difficult to discuss.


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