When is it really correct to 'beg the question'?

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A reader in Binghamton, N.Y., recently pointed out the misuse in the Monitor of the phrase "beg the question."

The writer of the article, referring to efforts by US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers to close elaborate tax shelters, says "his effort to crack down begs another question: What's one to make of a tax code that so readily spawns elaborate tax shelters?"

What the writer "clearly means is that the matter 'raises' or perhaps 'provokes' or 'invites' a question," says John Wilcox, a professor emeritus of philosophy at State University of New York in Binghamton. "My own English dictionaries do not sanction this new usage of beg the question."

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Professor Wilcox is right. There is widespread confusion about the proper use of this phrase. Most experts condemn the use of beg the question to mean invite a question. But many accept its use to suggest evading an issue, as in "Lest we be accused of begging the question, we will now turn to the origin of this phrase."

In medieval times, to beg the question had a very technical meaning among logicians. It referred to flawed reasoning that assumed, without warrant, the truth of the very point being discussed. They gave to this fallacy the Latin name petitio principii (postulation of the beginning).

Our contemporary dictionaries still provide this definition for beg the question. In fact, it seems to be the only definition that is universally accepted. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (unabridged, 1987) lists nothing else. Other dictionaries I've consulted include an evade definition, which may be seen as related to the original petitio principii usage. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993) offers an "evade a difficulty" sense for the phrase, which it calls "popular." Webster's New World College Dictionary (1999) offers an evade definition, but says it is used "loosely."

The DK Illustrated Oxford Dictionary (1998) lists the evade sense, which it calls "colloquial," and an invite sense, which it calls "disputed." The new Encarta World English Dictionary (1999) is the only one I know that includes an invite definition without a qualifying label.

Nonetheless, a quick electronic search of Monitor archives dating back to 1980 brings up 63 usages - about evenly split between the evade and invite categories - and none of the petitio principii-type.

Take, for instance, this sentence from 1983: "But doesn't the solution of efficiency beg the question of effectiveness? What's the point of doing something efficiently if it need not be done at all?" One looks in vain for help from the context of the sentence to know whether beg the question is to be interpreted here as meaning evade or invite. And that's part of the problem with the phrase. Even when writers use it in the more preferred sense of evading an issue, it may take careful readers some time and reflection to sort out what is intended. In this way, widespread use of the phrase to mean invite a question has robbed the evade sense of some of its punch.

The fact that the phrase is used so often in a way that is not recommended and far from its original meaning "invites" a couple of questions of its own: Is the preferred, or evade, sense of the phrase losing out?

Will the invite usage eventually be more widely condoned? This would not necessarily spell the demise of the evade sense, but could further erode it - just as the evade sense has helped make the petitio principii usage virtually archaic.

-- Readers are encouraged to send grammar or writing questions to Lance Carden, the Monitor's copy and style editor. The e-mail address is turnsof phrase@csps.com. The postal address is One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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