November 10th 2016
Today I learnt that I have been misusing the phrase ‘which begs the question’ for my entire life thus far. And, because I have nothing else about which to dedicate this blog, I’m now going to write an entire post about my previous misunderstanding and misuse of that phrase.
I have always (and as far as I can tell I’m not alone in this) used the phrase ‘Which begs the question…’ to mean the same as ‘which invites the question’ or ‘which raises the question’ but in fact, the specific use of ‘beg’ is completely inaccurate in that context.
Of course, if you think about the literal definition of each word in that phrase then of course ‘beg’ doesn’t make any sense. It’s not a synonym for ‘invite’ or ‘raise’ but it’s just one of those strange, English idioms that don’t make any sense when you actually think about what they mean.
Except it isn’t.
In proper context (usually in legislatory circumstances (I made that word up)) the phrase ‘begging the question’ means that in ones answer, one has used circular reasoning as a solution to the problem presented by the question. It is also defined as a logical fallacy where ‘Claim X assumes X is true, and therefore Claim X is true.’
As in, ‘The food was good because it tasted nice’ or, ‘bananas are healthy because they are good for you’ or ‘Why do you like the taste of chocolate? Because it tastes nice’
These are all examples of begging the question. I’m really hungry right now, so apparently the only examples I could think of were food related.
According to the podcast on grammar I was listening to (because I am an absolute hoot at parties) 95% of people use that phrase incorrectly. I’m 95% sure that statistic was made up, but even though I’m now in the 5% of people who know it’s correct usage, I’m sure I’ll still use it incorrectly.
Which begs the question, why do we just accept these phrases without thinking about what they mean?
Why are there fish in my kettle?
Why has a cat run away with my tongue?
Why does it take a donkey a longer and/or shorter time to orbit the sun than a human?
Won’t throwing a spanner at something break it?
How long is a barge pole and will it keep me an adequate distance away from the thing which I wish to be kept away from?
When you stop and think about these things, they make no sense, absolutely none. I mean, I have literally never seen a black kettle. I’m sure at one time they did make sense, but now we just accept that it’s a thing without thinking about it. And that’s fascinating to me – the origin and development of language.
Until tomorrow, stop begging.