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Begging the Question Defined
January 8, 2006 2:47 PM   Subscribe

Begging the Question, Defined Thank you, Anthropomorphic T. Rex, for explained exactly what "begging the question" means, in an easily accessible format.
posted by John of Michigan (145 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
qwantz is awesome, especially when t-rex says something pompous that sounds like something one might have said in the past and one gets to feel a little foolish.
posted by Space Coyote at 2:53 PM on January 8, 2006


Repost

This begs the question... is S@L writing Tyrranosaurus cartoons?

(Yes, I KNOW I'm using it "incorrectly.")

Personally, the literal meaning of the verb "to beg" makes the "incorrect" usage seem pretty sound to me. Dogs beg treats, politicians beg support. Why can't an argument that leads obviously to a new question be "begging the question?"
posted by zekinskia at 2:58 PM on January 8, 2006


It's funny because it's TRUE! Cute link, thanks. (And not really a "repost," although it's the same subject matter as a prior post.)
posted by brain_drain at 3:04 PM on January 8, 2006


Anthropomorphic T. Rex is AWESOME.
posted by scody at 3:05 PM on January 8, 2006


Why can't we say that an argument that leads obviously to a new question "leads to the question?"
posted by argybarg at 3:08 PM on January 8, 2006


Dinosaur comics are the best comics on the interweb. Also, WHATS THE HAPS, PEEPS?
posted by stenseng at 3:10 PM on January 8, 2006


Oh wow, I got here before languagehat could give his stock response.

Why can't an argument that leads obviously to a new question be "begging the question?"

Admit it: wouldn't such an argument be "begging for the question"? When I beg my mother for drugs, I don't "beg the drugs", do you?

The correct suck it, haters usage of "begging the question" is a useful one, and I resent its meaning being lost and watered down by interlopers who could damn well "prompt the question" if that's what they want to do. Yes, I know I could be "giving a circular argument" but that's too many syllables. So stop polluting my beautiful language!!!
posted by Aknaton at 3:13 PM on January 8, 2006


Dogs beg FOR treats. The difference between evolving language and weakening it (self-link).
posted by Eideteker at 3:13 PM on January 8, 2006


Right on, Aknaton. As my friend says, "Language evolves, but that doesn't mean we have to let it evolve into a three-headed, knuckle-dragging beast."
posted by Eideteker at 3:16 PM on January 8, 2006


We got way too anal over this the last time. Not again.
It begs the .......................
posted by caddis at 3:16 PM on January 8, 2006


Language is amorphous and dynamic, always evolving, always changing. To subject it to restrictions and rules is to cabinet ganja hoolamawanratot kadoodie.
posted by brownpau at 3:22 PM on January 8, 2006


The correct suck it, haters usage of "begging the question" is a useful one

Not really. It would be more useful to say "You're assuming what you claim to prove" than "You're begging the question." The debating-forum usage of "beg the question" is just pointless jargon, and clear, plain English is better than pointless jargon.

At the same time, it would be better to say "This leads to the following question:" or "This calls to mind the question of..." instead of "This begs the question:" if for no other reason than to avoid a cliche.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:23 PM on January 8, 2006


Words and sentences mean what most speakers of a langauge intend them to mean, your little more-textbook-than-thou battles aside.
posted by xmutex at 3:23 PM on January 8, 2006


As my friend says, "Language evolves, but that doesn't mean we have to let it evolve into a three-headed, knuckle-dragging beast."

Serious question: what was the paramount of language, in your opinion? Victorian England? Now?
posted by billysumday at 3:25 PM on January 8, 2006


The paramount, or the appex?
posted by ParisParamus at 3:33 PM on January 8, 2006


(I think paramount is an adjective; although there are also theatres with that name....)
posted by ParisParamus at 3:34 PM on January 8, 2006


I guess my language hasn't evolved enough to know.
posted by billysumday at 3:34 PM on January 8, 2006


If you care about our language, you'd wear the "Begs the Question" thong. I am.
posted by mullacc at 3:35 PM on January 8, 2006


It would be more useful to say "You're assuming what you claim to prove" than "You're begging the question."

No, it would be more useful if the person I was talking to knew the phrase (say, because they'd heard it used correctly carry on sucking, haters rather than abused).

Actually what would be even more useful is if they wouldn't beg the question.

This "why don't you want language to evolve? When was it perfect, and why?" stuff is a red herring. Of course language should evolve, and acquire important new words like "truthiness".
What it shouldn't do, yea I do say shouldn't ! is evolve in a way to increase confusion and make harder to say things that were once expressible quickly.
Eideteker's friend has put it well.
posted by Aknaton at 3:42 PM on January 8, 2006


I could care less about this.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:48 PM on January 8, 2006


`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.'

posted by milquetoast at 3:53 PM on January 8, 2006


"begs the question" should not be used. It's bad. Don't use it to mean "raises the question" and don't use it to mean "a fallacy of presumption." The former brings the prescriptivist knuckle draggers out to call you an idiot; the latter is just a phrase with an assumed meaning nothing like it's intended meaning, to the vast majority of English speakers. It looks like simple, non-idiomatic language to most people, so they won't even know they need to look it up.

Don't. Use. It. There are betters terms for both uses.

It's a bad phrase. Let it die, grammar nazis. Aknaton & Eideteker: your idea of language devolving is tortured and silly.
posted by teece at 3:54 PM on January 8, 2006


cabinet ganja hoolamawanratot kadoodie

I'm changing your intended meaning for this, and using it at will.
posted by carsonb at 3:57 PM on January 8, 2006


If dinasaurs knew of these language faux pas, why have we, as later (more "evolved") lifeforms un-learned it?
posted by Balisong at 3:57 PM on January 8, 2006


Language is amorphous and dynamic, always evolving, always changing. To subject it to restrictions and rules is to cabinet ganja hoolamawanratot kadoodie.

so's your mom.
posted by quonsar at 3:58 PM on January 8, 2006


Preach on Aknaton. There is a difference between misusing a phrase and choosing to use the phrase in a different way. I doubt very much that contemporary users of "begging the question" are making an effort to change the language and not just showing there own ignorance.
posted by oddman at 3:59 PM on January 8, 2006


LOL
posted by delmoi at 3:59 PM on January 8, 2006


Either that, or we, as Higher Life Forms, should use our 'control' over language to change the definition of "begs the question" to mean "raises the question" or "a fallacy of presumption". Changing the definitions of what you used to think things meant has been very in style lately.
posted by Balisong at 4:00 PM on January 8, 2006


Language is amorphous and dynamic, always evolving, always changing. To subject it to restrictions and rules is to cabinet ganja hoolamawanratot kadoodie.

I'll be quoting you.

Anyway: the descriptive people are a little bit right, and the prescriptive people are a little bit right. Now, I don't want any fights, so I'll be a-leaving. Loved the comic, though.
posted by Miko at 4:05 PM on January 8, 2006


Missed this one the first time, so thanks, John of Michigan, before it gets deleted. It's a true rarity - a really funny web comic. This one made me laugh out loud.
posted by mediareport at 4:05 PM on January 8, 2006


Description in the short run. Prescription in the long. If the opposite, things get clear.
posted by Gyan at 4:11 PM on January 8, 2006


I'm usually very pedantic about such things, but I don't think the original meaning of "begs the question" was ever a very good translation. Without being told what was meant by "begging the question", It's not at all obvious how that refers to the logical fallacy in question.

If the original phrase was "pleading the question", which it could easily have been, it's still not entirely clear what the speaker would have meant.

I vote we accept the loss of "begs the question", and move onto more worthy linguistic battles.

As for "truthiness", I have yet to actually hear/see this used in context anywhere, but apparently, the word is already in the OED...
posted by Jon Mitchell at 4:15 PM on January 8, 2006


Language should evolve towards precision. It's about communication, and communication requires some amount of agreement, as well as clarity. It doesn't have an apex. That's why it's evolving. An apex would be a stable point where language would stop evolving because it was perfectly suited to expression. This is by all means an impossibility. That doesn't mean we shouldn't work toward it.

I delight in finding just the perfect word for something, even if I have to come up with it. But I like to learn what things mean before changing their meaning. Ignorance is not an excuse, but neither is it required that you be nasty about informing someone of the meaning of the phrase. Communication is about bringing together, people!
posted by Eideteker at 4:15 PM on January 8, 2006


Example
posted by Decani at 4:16 PM on January 8, 2006


The best resolution I've seen for this issue came from the explanation of where the "beg the question" came from - if you're among people who will understand the difference and care, and not be offended by the use of a phrase they don't know, use the original: "petitio principii". If you're not, just don't use the phrase. The fact is that the "proper" usage is something of a mistranslation anyhow.

Having said that, I can't resist, and I apologize in advance:

making an effort to change the language and not just showing there own ignorance.

"their"
posted by freebird at 4:19 PM on January 8, 2006


The arguments about how and in what "direction" language should evolve misunderstand the nature of evolution. There is no direction or intentionality to the evolution. Language just changes. It doesn't evolve "towards" or "away" from precision or clarity or any other prescriptive value. It just follows the way people speak.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 4:19 PM on January 8, 2006


It's just a turf-war. Debating-club geeks get pissed when (gosh!) the wider public makes use of one of their sacred intellectual tools. They don't like it. They like feeling special, with their own set of jargon for their exclusive use. Fuck them. "Begs the question" isn't going anywhere, and webcomics and sites devoted to it's "correct" use aren't going to make a lick of difference.

so suck it, haters

I'm an ecologist. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is the sub-set of biology dealing with the distribution, abundance and interaction of organisms.

However, there are other people out there who also call themselves ecologists. They consider themselves ecologists because they put solar panels on their roof and donate money to Greenpeace.

I could get my balls all twisted up, and bitch and complain and say you're not an ecologist, you're an environmentalist! A Greenie! But fuck it. It can mean two things. It's not the end of the world.
posted by Jimbob at 4:20 PM on January 8, 2006


I was once beaten senseless by a question wielding a tyre iron. I begged the question to stop.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Awesome at 4:25 PM on January 8, 2006


brownpau:

I hate to be anal here, but you really meant to say pating hoolamawanratot kadoodie, instead of ganja hoolamawanratot kadoodie.

Mind you, I know it's a common mistake, but I do believe in the precision and purity of language, so I'm going to have to call you out on this one.

Sorry...
posted by Samizdata at 4:26 PM on January 8, 2006


(By the way - whoever the hell decided English was supposed to be precise?)
posted by Jimbob at 4:28 PM on January 8, 2006


"truthyness" is a stupid word, and the lamest thing to come out of Colbert's mouth since he started the show. The good shows were #2 and on.
posted by delmoi at 4:31 PM on January 8, 2006


monju_bosatsu: Those people speak consciously. They decide which words to use. I hope I don't see anyone wielding the "pointless" argument on MetaTalk, ever, talking about what the site should be, because really, it'll become what it'll become and it's pointless to try to shape its evolution.
posted by Eideteker at 4:32 PM on January 8, 2006


For that matter, if it's pointless, why post a comment to MetaFilter at all? Not to go all strawman here, but isn't it similarly pointless to try to change people's minds?
posted by Eideteker at 4:33 PM on January 8, 2006


JimBob: It was basket by car table ninja foosball gravity.

That is - no-one is claiming any language is exact and precise, but there are gradations, and beyond a certain point language becomes useless. The two meanings for "begging the question" are different enough to matter, but close enough that the meaning is usually *not* clear from context. That's broken.
posted by freebird at 4:34 PM on January 8, 2006


Aknaton writes "This 'why don't you want language to evolve? When was it perfect, and why?' stuff is a red herring. Of course language should evolve, and acquire important new words like 'truthiness'.
"What it
shouldn't do, yea I do say shouldn't ! is evolve in a way to increase confusion and make harder to say things that were once expressible quickly. "

Ah, but now you're begging the question (in both senses). You were asked how we can define some notion of "goodness" of a language, and you instead say we should be talking about efficiency. This "begs the question" by prompting the question of "what is efficiency and how to we evaluate it?", and it also "begs the question" by introducing efficiency as a factor, without saying why this is a valid measure of a language, or how we would even evaluate a language's efficiency in a practical and broadly applicable way.

This fallacy on your part shows how the first sense of "to beg the question" springs from the first. By making a fallacy of presumption, you prompt questions about your presumption.

Besides, I don't see why the two meanings of the phrase "to beg the question", one a popular meaning and one a technical meaning in logic/rhetoric, can't coexist. Different meanings for different populations/situations.
posted by samw at 4:35 PM on January 8, 2006


The difference between evolving language and weakening it (self-link).... it'll become what it'll become and it's pointless to try to shape its evolution.

So, you don't want to weaken language - but you seek to weaken the proper, technical use of the word "evolution" by using it to mean something that can be directed. You're abusing the technical term "evolution" when a more suitable word (change? direction? outcome? progress?) should have been used.
posted by Jimbob at 4:37 PM on January 8, 2006


I love how people who misuse language out of ignorance or laziness like to claim they're going all Shakespeare on our collective asses -- "we're just expanding the boundaries of English and/or enriching our collective capacity for communication, and anyone who disagrees is a prescriptivist fascist pig." No, you're not, and no, we're not. You're making a mistake you don't care to correct, which means you care more about saying what you feel like saying rather than communicating clearly. Which is fine, but do us all the respect of owning it rather than trying to deflect it onto the rest of us for being language Nazis.
posted by scody at 4:37 PM on January 8, 2006


Different meanings for different populations/situations.

I'm with you in general, but I disagree here: I see the phrase used quite often in a context where it's not clear what's intended - the phrase itself is supposed to convey the writer's intent.

One of the things I find fascinating about language is its ambiguity, and its "error correcting" properties. When a phrase has meanings close enough to often not disambiguate, but different enough to matter, I think there is a loss of descriptive power.
posted by freebird at 4:40 PM on January 8, 2006


An interesting question; if one were to run a poll, on the general population, asking:

Does the phrase "beg the question" mean:
(a) "Raises the question."
(b) "A fallacy of presumption."
(c) Have never heard the phrase used.

What do you reckon the results would be? Has anyone ever tried this?
posted by Jimbob at 4:47 PM on January 8, 2006


The fact that people can so quickly jump up to point out someone's 'incorrect' use of the phrase "begs the question" shows that there really isn't that much of a confusion between the two. (Especially since the technical meaning is usually phrased as 'begging the question')

Logicians don't shove 'exclusive-or' and 'or' distinctions down the throats of people having a conversaton, when they want to be precise among themselves they can, but the rest of us can be generous enough to take what people mean when they say something.
posted by Space Coyote at 4:48 PM on January 8, 2006


It was said to me once by someone I am close to that "precision in language is precision in thinking." In fact, upon some retrospection, that struck me as part of the goal of Newspeak in 1984.
posted by Samizdata at 4:48 PM on January 8, 2006


Thanks, scody.

Freebird: We're indeed in an age where the proliferation of communication leads many to fancy themselves amateur logicians. As you said, it makes things unclear.

Jimbob: Should I have used development? The (techinically, a) definition of evolution is something that changes gradually over time. That's the definition I'm familiar with, and thought predated Darwin. But I fully admit I could be wrong. The root is in "unroll" such as we think of events "unfolding" in a story (in this case, the story of language). I don't think in this context there's any ambiguity with the theory of biology. But I also think that biological evolution can be and is directed. Again, what other reason for choice? Why bother making choices if not to affect how the future unrolls?
(Freewill v. Determinism, Round 42,410,126)

Samizdata: You mean the opposite of that was the goal of Newspeak, right? Newspeak was about imprecision to dull the minds of the proles.
posted by Eideteker at 4:54 PM on January 8, 2006


Oh wow, I got here before languagehat could give his stock response.

So you did, so you did. But I'm here now, and I'm going to give my stock response:
This is one of those issues that is catnip to the adolescent language-lover but which a sensible person grows out of. I too used to enjoy tormenting people with the "truth" about the phrase, but I eventually realized that, whatever its origins in philosophy and petitio principii, I had never seen or heard the phrase used "correctly" except by people making a point of doing so (cf. "hoi polloi"); in current English usage, "beg the question" means 'raise the question,' and that's that. I got over it, and so should Safire. (An anguished appraisal by the earnest Michael Quinion of World Wide Words ends by saying the phrase is "better avoided altogether"; like Fowler's similar recommendation concerning "hoi polloi," this counsel of despair is a sign that the language has sailed on, leaving wistful archaists treading water and clutching at the stern.)
I might also point out that my own brief post about this delightful cartoon got the following response from an actual philosopher:
As a philosopher by profession, I can confirm that begging the question is very much in active use as a technical term, and also that we get very annoyed when people [mis]appropriate it.

Like many other terms in logic, as also in rhetoric, it has a winding and obscure trajectory through ancient and mediaeval times to the present day. In my opinion the use of such ill-bred terms renders needlessly difficult the teaching of informal logic (or critical reasoning as it gets called - as if there were any other sort of reasoning). Begging the question deserves to be misused, because it is a stupidly misleading term in the first place.

My approach is never to use it in ordinary discourse, and in fact hardly ever to use it in technical contexts either, because it refers to a theoretically problematic notion anyway. In ordinary discourse I prefer to speak of raising a question; and in technical contexts I prefer to speak of circular arguments.
So there you go: you can talk about petitio principii or circular arguments if you want to be philosophically precise; the only reason for using this absurd phrase is to be pedantic.

As for "truthiness", I have yet to actually hear/see this used in context anywhere, but apparently, the word is already in the OED...

It doesn't say anywhere in your linked page that the word is in the OED, for the very good reason that it's not in the OED, as should have been apparent if you'd given the matter five seconds' thought.
posted by languagehat at 4:57 PM on January 8, 2006


Well, you probably are right that it predated Darwin, and indeed there are other uses for the term. I was just trying to get in a subtle dig: The term "evolution" in my technical field has a very precise definition, which does not include the idea that it can be directed towards a particular outcome. Selection can be directed - but we don't call that evolution, we call that, for instance, "aritficial selection". Popular usage may be more broad - just last night I heard about how car design has "evolved".

Similarly, the technical use of "begging the question" within the field of formal logic is precise - but popular usage is more broad. There doesn't need to be an argument about this, if everyone knows what they mean, and I think they do.
posted by Jimbob at 5:05 PM on January 8, 2006


freebird writes "One of the things I find fascinating about language is its ambiguity, and its 'error correcting' properties. When a phrase has meanings close enough to often not disambiguate, but different enough to matter, I think there is a loss of descriptive power."

Yes, if you think of an utterance as a monolithic description of the utterer's meaning, then ambiguity can decrease descriptiveness. But it is only recently (as far has the history of language is concerned) that we have had communication media that make this true. We must remember that historically, all language takes place in the context of a conversation. Minor ambiguity is then easily tolerated, as you can just ask for clarification.

If you want to say that we should all strive for precision (due to the existence of new media), that's fine. But it seems a bit... demanding to expect everyone to be completely precise all the time (even when in the context of a conversation).
posted by samw at 5:05 PM on January 8, 2006


From the "Begging the Question Thong" link:

The BTQ Thong, printed with the mysterious BTQ Logo, is an intimate way to lead to in-bed conversation on the issues of BTQ abuse. A great way to gently correct that special someone.

More Details
This product is designed to fit juniors. It fits snug, sizes run small.


This raises the question: why are juniors having intimate in-bed conversations about anything?
posted by arcticwoman at 5:12 PM on January 8, 2006


I love how people who misuse language out of ignorance or laziness like to claim they're going all Shakespeare on our collective asses -- "we're just expanding the boundaries of English and/or enriching our collective capacity for communication, and anyone who disagrees is a prescriptivist fascist pig." No, you're not, and no, we're not. You're making a mistake you don't care to correct, which means you care more about saying what you feel like saying rather than communicating clearly. Which is fine, but do us all the respect of owning it rather than trying to deflect it onto the rest of us for being language Nazis.

(I just wanted to post this again.)
posted by ryanhealy at 5:15 PM on January 8, 2006


Metafilter: Making fallacies of presumption

Metafilter: Inferring the inconsequential
posted by blue_beetle at 5:23 PM on January 8, 2006


Too bad S@L isn't here. He really used to like to wail on people for begging questions.
posted by Balisong at 5:23 PM on January 8, 2006


One of the greatest catastrophes of begging the question abuse is that it has wasted countless manhours where people discuss it on the Internet.

Jimbob: I would argue that within the term "evolution" are the specific (and purpose-designed) terms of natural and artificial selection. I used evolution in the broader sense; you thought I meant natural selection. This is exactly the kind of miscommunication and imprecision I'd like to reduce. I like your candor, though, and understand what you mean. I hope my reply did not come off as condescending or nasty in any way, because I'd rather know if I was doing something wrong (i.e. imprecise). That's fundamentally (thanks again, scody) the issue here; people who want to admit when they've made a slip-up, and those who assume they should never be corrected, ever (spoiled brats! the lot of them). That's hyperbole, to be sure, but an attitude of accomodation and discussion to agree on common meanings is conducive to communication. An attitude of standoffishness and "who are you to correct me?" are antithetical to communication. BtQ is likely a lost cause, but we can at least try to agree on what things mean.
posted by Eideteker at 5:25 PM on January 8, 2006


I think that it embiggens us all to avoid begging the question. And I also think that truthiness is a perfectly cromulant word.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:25 PM on January 8, 2006


One of the greatest catastrophes of begging the question abuse is that it has wasted countless manhours where people discuss it on the Internet.

But it's easier than trying to refute evidence that doesn't point toward your position.
posted by Balisong at 5:26 PM on January 8, 2006


Jon Mitchell: As for "truthiness", I have yet to actually hear/see this used in context anywhere, but apparently, the word is already in the OED...

languagehat: It doesn't say anywhere in your linked page that the word is in the OED, for the very good reason that it's not in the OED, as should have been apparent if you'd given the matter five seconds' thought.

From the page Jon Mitchell cited:
But just in case Stanley didn't kill the humor entirely, let me finish the job by pointing out that truthiness wouldn't necessarily offend the Word Police either, since it actually appears in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED has an entry for truthy, marked "rare or dialectal" and defined as "characterized by truth; truthful, true." The derived form truthiness (meaning "truthfulness, faithfulness") follows, supported by this citation:

1824 J. J. GURNEY in Braithwaite Mem. (1854) I. 242 Everyone who knows her is aware of her truthiness.
So the word is in fact in the OED (according to the article -- I haven't checked the OED myself), although not with the meaning Colbert ascribes to it.
posted by brain_drain at 5:27 PM on January 8, 2006


It doesn't say anywhere in your linked page that the word is in the OED

Hmm. Really? Perhaps I misread it.

"The OED has an entry for truthy, marked "rare or dialectal" and defined as "characterized by truth; truthful, true." The derived form truthiness (meaning "truthfulness, faithfulness") follows, supported by this citation:

1824 J. J. GURNEY in Braithwaite Mem. (1854) I. 242 Everyone who knows her is aware of her truthiness."

Italics mine, but, regardless of this assertion's truthiness, the linked page does, indeed, say that.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 5:28 PM on January 8, 2006


But it seems a bit... demanding to expect everyone to be completely precise all the time (even when in the context of a

Indeed, and I am fairly certain I've never stated any such expectation. The ambiguity of language is one of its chief riches. As with any richness, it can be overtaxed. My point is not that language should never be ambiguous, but that this ambiguity is a powerful and wonderful tool, and should not be wasted in ignorance. I think there are few cases when the "beg the question" ambiguity is used intentionally (this thread, of course, having some wonderful examples of this).

So while I agree that ambiguity is a needful part of speech, you surely take this too far if you mean that all ambiguity is always good. This over-use demeans the best it can offer, as needless swearing lessens the effect when you really fucking need it.

So while I've long abandonded the question-begging field, I think language itself must and will move to resolve it to a single meaning. Since I find the original meaning better served by "petitio principii", I see no real problem abandoning this misunderstood mistranslation of a fallacy to the fickle whims of common usage.
posted by freebird at 5:29 PM on January 8, 2006


On no-preview-at-all. DAMMIT!!!
posted by Jon Mitchell at 5:29 PM on January 8, 2006


sorry to misquote: "even when in the context of a conversation"
posted by freebird at 5:31 PM on January 8, 2006


2-in-1 is a bullshit term because 1 isn't big enough to hold 2. That's why 2 was created. If it was 2-in-1, it would be overflowing.
posted by StrasbourgSecaucus at 5:33 PM on January 8, 2006


<threadjack>
So, you don't want to weaken language - but you seek to weaken the proper, technical use of the word "evolution" by using it to mean something that can be directed.

Your statement assumes that evolution only works by natural selection, but in fact evolution works by artificial selection as well. Poodles didn't occur in nature, for example. And thus it is with language - language evolves "naturally" (although "gradually" may be a better term) over time, and artificially when an old term is re-purposed or a new term is coined. Words like "truthiness" are the poodles of language.
</threadjack>
posted by RylandDotNet at 5:35 PM on January 8, 2006


Language, shmanguage. Dromiceiomimus is hot. Dromiceiomimus would wear the Begging the Question thong. (And she's Canadian). Thanks, JofM!
posted by steef at 5:35 PM on January 8, 2006


Isn't the real expression "beggars the question", and not "begs the question"?
posted by clevershark at 5:36 PM on January 8, 2006


Too bad S@L isn't here. He really used to like to wail on people for begging questions.

I think you're thinking of someone else.
posted by solid-one-love at 5:39 PM on January 8, 2006


2-in-1 is a bullshit term because 1 isn't big enough to hold 2. That's why 2 was created. If it was 2-in-1, it would be overflowing.

Nice Mitch Hedberg impression.
posted by ryanhealy at 5:41 PM on January 8, 2006


freebird, we're very much on the same page with this.

freebird writes "My point is not that language should never be ambiguous, but" etcetc.

I didn't mean to say that it was. I was trying to preempt a counter-argument that precision is something to strive for.

freebird writes "you surely take this too far if you mean that all ambiguity is always good."

True. But I didn't mean ambiguity is always good; just harmless.
posted by samw at 5:43 PM on January 8, 2006


but in fact evolution works by artificial selection as well

I would argue that shifts in gene frequencies work by artificial selection, but that evolution, as understood in biology, is something that occurs by natural selection. Nature didn't evolve poodles. Humans bred them, and let us never forget our misguided fooling with forces we may never understand in creating such a creature.
posted by Jimbob at 5:53 PM on January 8, 2006


Clevershark - no, but you're right in a deeper sense. It's pretty much a mistranslation. Someone pointed me at Quinion for this issue a while back, and I'll pass the favor along:

The fallacy was described by Aristotle in his book on logic in about 350BC. His Greek name for it was turned into Latin as petitio principii and then into English in 1581 as beg the question. Most of our problems arise because the person who translated it made a hash of it. The Latin might better be translated as “laying claim to the principle”.


Samw, I think we disagree more than you think. You say:

But I didn't mean ambiguity is always good; just harmless.

Which I find preposterous, as well as the notion that precision isn't a valid goal. Rather than any abstract discourse, I present a simple example:

Somewhere in the chain of communication from that rescue team in the mine last week out to the media, an ambiguity was introduced as to the number of survivors. I see that as having caused real and needless suffering. We mustn't get so jaded about the core purposes of language that we think it's all some post-modern game. There is a real need to communicate concrete information and reasoned argument; ambiguity and flexible semantics are powerful and pleasurable precisely because they are exceptions.
posted by freebird at 5:54 PM on January 8, 2006


I think I might be the only one ever who finds T-Rex just annoying and not funny. Maybe it's because I know someone who talks just like he does.
posted by joegester at 5:57 PM on January 8, 2006


Metafilter: a three-headed, knuckle-dragging beast
posted by mr_crash_davis at 5:59 PM on January 8, 2006



posted by fandango_matt at 6:06 PM on January 8, 2006


freebird writes "Which I find preposterous, as well as the notion that precision isn't a valid goal. Rather than any abstract discourse, I present a simple example:"

I considered saying "usually harmless". Evidently I should have. "Mostly harmless", even.

It is mostly harmless in that it is easily corrected most of the time, and (in cases like this) is frequently eliminated permanently by normal language change. Of course there are times when one needs to give special attention to being precise, but I'm not really talking about exceptional circumstances like those you describe.
posted by samw at 6:10 PM on January 8, 2006


How does one use "petitio principii" in conversation?

"Ah, bup bup bup! You just petitio principiied!"

And another question: why should you also have to learn Latin to speak English? Maybe it was a poor translation, but that's the phrase we use in English to mean a specific thing. There's no reason people can't be educated to use the phrase in English without learning the Latin; or else we'd all be fluent in Latin and Greek.
posted by Eideteker at 6:15 PM on January 8, 2006


Count me in as one who gets irritated over the misuse of this phrase. I'm generally okay to let it slide in general conversation - I *will not* become one of those people who gets all tingly over correcting my peers - but it drives me *crazy* when I see it (quite often) misused in newspapers and books. Isn't that what editors are for?!? Shouldn't they have a moderate command of proper usage?
posted by Banky_Edwards at 6:24 PM on January 8, 2006


Isn't all this a mute point? I could care less if grammer is partially destroyed.
posted by fandango_matt at 6:26 PM on January 8, 2006


Eideteker - I guess the point is that anyone who's going to be unwilling to learn a cool latin phrase is unlikely to know what you really mean by "beg the question" anyhow. So if the goal is to communicate outside those rareified circles, you should use something more clear anyway.

I think it's an interesting case, since the "correct" phrase really is kind of a mistake to begin with. I've largely reversed my position on it as a result of things I learned here at MetaFilter - but I'm still not in Languagehat's "common usage trumps all" camp. I think that just as we breed animals to suit our needs, we play an active role in the development of our language, and that to insist that whatever is decided as "common usage" is fine is as short-sighted as to insist that we should speak just as we did in the universities of centuries past.

I think there is a general decline in the common use of english, and I stand with the Grumpy Old Folks on the porch, throwing sticks and stones as the bones of these words become broken.
posted by freebird at 6:56 PM on January 8, 2006


"When I use a word (or phrase), it means precisely what I want it to mean, neither more nor less." With apologies to Humpty Dumpty and Lewis Carroll
posted by spock at 7:02 PM on January 8, 2006


Anybody have any thoughts on the expression "buggers the question"?
posted by spock at 7:05 PM on January 8, 2006


Shouldn't they have a moderate command of proper usage?

There's the rub, huh?

Who the hell are you, or anyone else, to decide what "proper" usage is? Especially in a case such as this, when there is a damn good argument to be made that "proper" usages is complete bunk.

The rhetorical usage of "begs the question" is retarded. It's a very stupid name for that fallacy. But because a bunch of pedants are taught that name in rhetoric class, they get their panties in a bunch when others hear the stupid term, and assign a much more logical meaning to the phrase.

This doesn't have a damn thing to do with proper. It has do to with territorial pissing, and the desire to prescribe your own definition for a phrase others use differently.

At the end of the day, this argument is about belittling people. It's about saying, "I have a proper education, and learned the proper meaning of 'beg the question.' I am here to educate you unwashed masses that abuse the term." It's about making sure your usage is seen as correct, as high class, as educated and erudite. And making sure the competing usage is seen as the opposite.

And frankly, that attitude is lame, in addition to being quite ignorant of the way language actually works.

(Not trying to pick on Banky_Edwards or others, or divine your motives. Rather, I don't think most people actually understand what the term "proper" actually means when it comes to language. It's all about class, and nothing about communication. The "basest" of gutter-speak English is always an internally consistent variant of the language, just as is the "highest" of academic dialects. It's only societal fashion which picks one as "proper" and the other as "dirty.")
posted by teece at 7:06 PM on January 8, 2006


Teece - sure, but the fact that there is a lot of elitist nonsense doesn't preclude the existence of bad english. This is a "false dichotomy". You see how nice it is to have a phrase that describes a particular rhetorical fallacy? It's a useful tool, because you know what it means. If your audience is unlikely to know what it means, it's a bad choice of words. This is usually for one of two reasons:

1) the meaning of the phrase is or has become unclear.
2) you're using the wrong phrase with the wrong audience.

When you say "It's all about class, nothing about communication", you come very close to saying that however people use language is correct by definition. This may be philosophically appealing, but is silly in the real world. The fact is that people say some stupid and wrong things.
posted by freebird at 7:17 PM on January 8, 2006


"...a lot of elitist nonsense doesn't preclude the existence of bad english"..."
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:19 PM on January 8, 2006


It's silly to debate correct usage if "correct" means RIGHT in some cosmic sense (unless you believe words come to us from God). Words are tools. Tools can be useful, less-useful and not useful. Tools can have multiple uses. If I use a hammer as a musical instrument, does it make sense to tell me that this is not its correct use?

If we're having a conversation about dogs and we all mean different things by "dog," that's a problem. That's not useful. And that's too bad. But it's pretty hard to say -- meaningfully -- that one meaning is the correct meaning unless you include some context for "correct." Do you mean the meaning used by most people? Fine. Say so. Do you mean the original meaning? Fine. Say so. Do you mean the most beautiful meaning? The meaning YOU prefer? The first meaning? The meaning in a particular dictionary? Can you explain why I (or anyone else) should be bound by your context?

I feel pretty comfortable calling someone wrong (though I'm not on 100% logical footing) if it's clear they meant something different from what they said. For instance, if someone says "I just checked the barometer and it says it's 30 degrees outside." I'm pretty sure that he WOULD have said thermometer if he knew the standard meaning of the word.

I KNOW the technical meaning of "begging the question," and I still say "begs the question." I do this quite purposefully, because to me this alternate usage is meaningful. So I'm not "misus[ing] the language out of ignorance." I also don't "care more about saying what [I] feel like saying rather than communicating clearly." I use "begs the question" because I CRAVE clarity. At worst, I am mistaken that I'm being clear.

My context for language is imagery. When I talk or write, my goal is to invoke CLEAR images in the receiver's head. And, if possible, I would also like these images to be exciting and evocative.

"Beg" is such a thrilling, sharp, clear verb: I beg water for my horse. PLEASE give him some water! I beg money for my liposuction. I beg sex from a pretty girl.

I also like the image of literally begging the question itself (as opposed to begging someone to ask a question). This is a clear, useful metaphor.

I don't think either of these meanings harm the technical meaning. When the phrase is being used technically, it is generally clear from the context of the conversation. Sure, most people don't know the technical usage, but it's silly to focus your anger at this on "beg the question." The sad truth is that most people know nothing about logic or rhetoric.
posted by grumblebee at 7:22 PM on January 8, 2006


freebird writes "I think there is a general decline in the common use of english, and I stand with the Grumpy Old Folks on the porch, throwing sticks and stones as the bones of these words become broken."

Oops! You're right, we do disagree more than I thought we did. Each generation thinks the one after it corrupts the more perfect language of the generation before. This has been going on for centuries. Some day I'll learn my lesson and stop arguing the point.

freebird writes "you come very close to saying that however people use language is correct by definition. This may be philosophically appealing, but is silly in the real world. The fact is that people say some stupid and wrong things."

You're missing the forest for the trees. Of course if one person misspeaks (or even makes some kind of systematic error based on "ignorance") that doesn't change the meaning of the word/structure they misused. But what if a whole community does? There is no useful justification for the meaning of a word other than how the community in question uses it. On preview, what grumblebee said.
posted by samw at 7:27 PM on January 8, 2006


Isn't all this a mute point?

Jesus Christ, man! It's MOOT point. MOOT POINT. Fuckwads like you are ruining the language!
*snicker*
posted by carsonb at 7:30 PM on January 8, 2006


Has anybody here ever, ever been confused when somebody said "that begs the question", because they thought the person was talking about a fallacy of presumption when in fact they meant "raises the question"? Anybody who wasn't aware of the "raises the question" meaning before they read this thread?

Anybody?
posted by flashboy at 7:33 PM on January 8, 2006


carsonb: I'm pretty sure that's what the grammar police would refer to as "humor."
posted by absalom at 7:37 PM on January 8, 2006


absalom: read my comment with a french accent.
posted by carsonb at 7:39 PM on January 8, 2006


whoo! sorry, absalom. Irony is so hard in text, you know?
posted by carsonb at 7:43 PM on January 8, 2006


Related thread
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:48 PM on January 8, 2006


teece, I'm sure this isn't where you were going, and must preface my observation by saying that I completely understand the feelings you expressed in your comment.

HOWEVER....a comment like this:

At the end of the day, this argument is about belittling people.

...smacks of--to me--a fundamentally anti-intellectual stance, and a mistrust of formal education. As a teacher (of music), I correct my students' grammar regularly, not to belittle them in any way, but to assure precision in their verbal and written expression. It's also a habit within my family, many of whom are teachers.

Now, those who feel the need to correct random strangers on internet discussion boards are, perhaps, being pedantic--or perhaps they are simply evincing a love for our language.

Your rant, however, definitely evinces a big ol' chip on your shoulder.
posted by LooseFilter at 7:54 PM on January 8, 2006


Anybody who begins a definition with "X is when..." deserves to be cast out and repudiated.
Dinosaur or no dinosaur.
posted by signal at 7:57 PM on January 8, 2006


As a footnote (and on topic), my sense is that these kinds of arguments--about what things mean, exactly--are actually quite important in a medium like this. After all, in the absence of any verbal, facial, or bodily cues, the only way to ascertain a writer's meaning is through the words themselves.

I welcome any sort of precision in public discourse, esp. in the age of absurd euphemisms and opposite meanings. (cue Carlin rant....)
posted by LooseFilter at 7:59 PM on January 8, 2006


I ♥ scody.
posted by delmoi at 8:07 PM on January 8, 2006


Not a chip LooseFilter: an understanding of why you actually correct your students, and not the stated reason (precision). It's important to speak the dialect of English that will get you jobs, that will get you respect of your chosen or desired peers. That has nothing to do with precision or correctness -- it has to do with arbitrary custom. Take Ebonics, for example -- there is absolutely nothing "imprecise" or "wrong" about it. But it will be roundly mocked as such by some academics and almost all prescriptivists. But, Ebonics is just as effective a dialect as any other -- its speakers do not constantly find themselves saying, "damn, I can't understand nobody." It works just fine.

This question begging debate is just a small, and particularly ludicrous, example of that kind of thinking.

A few hundred years ago it would not have been "proper English" that we used, it would have been "the King's English."

Speaking the king's English has nothing to do with precision -- it has to do with class. It has to do with elevating one variant of the language above all others.

It's actually quite the opposite of anti-intellectual to point that out. It's an understanding of the intellectual pursuit of language that makes me want to point that out. Two things have profoundly impacted my life: studying a bit of anthropology, and studying a bit of linguistics

In both, I learned about the utter arbitrariness of the vast majority of human custom. That's what this is: it has nothing to do with precision.

What's anti-intellectual to me is how very few people ever come to realize some of the most basic ideas of the intellectual pursuit of the study of language.

(To be sure, you can teach students about precision in language: and if you do so, you'd teach them to avoid the phrase "beg the question" like the plague. Precision is about saying what you mean. That has nothing to do with teaching the standard, academic English of lettered people: that's about making sure you know the right dialect for the social group you strive to belong to).
posted by teece at 8:11 PM on January 8, 2006


carsonb, you're thinking of sarcasm.

solid-one-love: s@l, while somewhat visually similar, does not refer to you. it refers to steve@linnwood, a user from times gone by whose name I may be misspelling. regardless, as similar looking as an @ symbol is to an O, it is uncommon to mistakenly press shift+2 when you meant to press o.
posted by shmegegge at 8:17 PM on January 8, 2006


Mea culpa.
posted by solid-one-love at 8:26 PM on January 8, 2006


I'm glad that languagehat is on the descriptivist side, here, but I'm worried I may have gone full over to the linguistic moonbat society. I sent the begsthequestion.info guy this rebuttal, which he never published:

I've spent time on both the prescriptivist and descriptivist sides of language, but now lean strongly toward the latter. I think prescriptivism has a place, but only as a functional ruleset for communication, not as being correct for its own sake.

That said, I have long felt that concern about begs-the-question "misuse" is misplaced. I believe that when a person casually invokes "that begs the question", even if they /really mean/ "raises the concern", they actually are putting forth an assumption -- begging the question.

"Congressman Smith voted no on the Social Security package. Which begs the question, does he have parents he cares about?"
"Mark claims to be an auto mechanic but doesn't know metric from his ass. Which begs the question, do you want him working on your Fiat?"

In these formulations, the ending is really a kind of uptalk variant. Uptalk is understood to be a socialized gloss over possibly controversial opinions ("So he was like you're not worth my time, OK?") and I believe that the modern use of "begs the question" functions similarly. The speakers above *really do mean*
"Congressman Smith does not care about his parents ... or yours."
"Mark should not be working on cars, certainly not foreign cars."

Thus, they are positing an assumption of argument. The fallacy is there, too, in that there is usually only a passing and unproven logical connection between the statements.

Now, I can see how this will be dismissed as a convoluted rationalization. But when I myself realized that the way people did use it still involved argument and (often) fallacy, just *turned around*, it completely changed my understanding of the usage and the claims of misuse.

posted by dhartung at 9:15 PM on January 8, 2006


Not a chip LooseFilter: an understanding of why you actually correct your students, and not the stated reason (precision).

No, actually, my stated reason is in fact the reason that I insist upon precision in language from my students--I'm a professor, so I train teachers. For any teacher, most especially a teacher of music, a conscious precision in language is critically important. In music (as with any other discipline), specific concepts have specific appellations, and it's pedagogically important not to use terms before the concepts have been introduced and understood.

The same idea follows with language generally--the more precisely expressive one is with words, the more clearly understood one can be. Many, many of the grammatical errors I hear from university students actually cloud the intended meaning. So I also try to teach them a habit of mind--that one should try to say exactly what one means--to encourage clarity in thinking and expression generally.

We live in an era when it doesn't really matter what words are supposed to mean ("mission accomplished" or "gourmet fast food" or one of a million examples that come to mind), and I for one simply don't see a concern with linguistic precision as automatically indicating elitism or pedantry or any of the other motives that you project onto some in this discussion.

As a teacher, it's important to me that my students think clearly; the only real indications I have of their thinking are the words they choose to communicate.

Also, I can't help but notice that you choose to follow accepted rules of syntax, spelling, and so forth--I assume that this is because you wish to be understood. So what we're talking about here is a question of degree.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:23 PM on January 8, 2006


(teece, also, I understand your intellectual point about the social hierarchy embedded in language and usage--I'm not quarrelling with that. I was just observing that, to me, the emotional weight of your comment seemed to be more about expressing long-held resentment (toward elitism, etc., I'm guessing) than about making an intellectual observation on the roles of language in creating and/or reinforcing social hierarchy.)
posted by LooseFilter at 10:27 PM on January 8, 2006


All this kinda reminds me of an anecdote about Charles Bukowski. Since almost everything he knew about art and literature was learnt through books rather than discourse, he had the habit of pronouncing some artist's names phonetically.
Anyone presumptuous enough to correct him would be rewarded with a glare, a growled "That's how I say it.", and the fear that an empty wine bottle would make its cordial acquaintance with their face as the night progressed.
I like Buk's way, if only because it requires that a wine bottle be emptied.


posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:29 PM on January 8, 2006


They never said what the question was.
posted by HTuttle at 10:58 PM on January 8, 2006


The graceful evolution of a language depends upon a healthy balance of language conservatives and language liberals, of prescriptivists and descriptivists. The proper balance is more prescriptive and less descriptive: keep the language usefully steady and precise, make sure English teachers turn out people who know and know how to follow the current rules of the language, but listen to and cooperate with the people who consciously fiddle with the current rules, assuming their fiddles are intelligent, interesting, and useful, and are not merely evidence of sloppiness or ignorance.
posted by pracowity at 1:31 AM on January 9, 2006


HA!! You're made out of Meat!

Your family is made out of meat!


This classic truism proves my point a priori – because my argument is so meritous, it can rest on it's laurels. Laurels made out of meat.

In other words, y'all, sitting at the computer, are all made out of meat. Your families are made out of meat too. They'll die. Your little dog too. That's why you're wrong, you know.
posted by blasdelf at 5:24 AM on January 9, 2006


And another question: why should you also have to learn Latin to speak English? Maybe it was a poor translation, but that's the phrase we use in English to mean a specific thing. There's no reason people can't be educated to use the phrase in English without learning the Latin; or else we'd all be fluent in Latin and Greek.

This is amazingly confused.

Why should you also have to learn Latin to speak English?

You shouldn't and don't—but you have to learn certain words and phrases (and abbreviations, like i.e. and e.g.) that have been adopted from Latin (and French and other languages). How can you tell if a Latin (or other foreign) phrase has been adopted into the language? Why, you look in the dictionary. Webster's Collegiate is a handy, commonly used one. Let's look up nox omnibus noctibus nigrior 'night darker than all nights.' Nope, not there: it's pure Latin, and there's no reason you should know it. Now let's try pater patriae 'father of [his] country': it's in the "Foreign Words & Phrases" section at the back, meaning that it's used frequently enough in English writing to be worth knowing but is still felt as foreign, so that you should italicize it. What about petitio principii? Why, lookee there, it's right in the main section of the dictionary (page 926 of the Eleventh Edition), along with other borrowed items like pesto, petard, and petit bourgeois. These are all citizens of the English language in good standing, and you don't need to italicize them, you can use them like any other English word, with the full expectation that they should be understood by any well-educated person. So don't give me this "Latin" crap. (If you're wondering why I italicized the last bunch of words, it's because that's how I handle words I refer to as words, rather than putting them in quotation marks.)

Maybe it was a poor translation, but that's the phrase we use in English to mean a specific thing.


Yes, but not the way you mean. "We" (meaning the vast majority of the speakers of English, including many who know your allegedly "correct" meaning) use it to mean 'raise the question.' You (and your tiny cohort of fellow pedants) use it to mean petitio principii, for reasons of elitist self-affirmation you prefer not to examine too closely.

There's no reason people can't be educated to use the phrase in English without learning the Latin


Well, apparently there is, because you folks have been doing your best, for god knows how long, to educate, intimidate, and humiliate everyone else into following your lead, and yet no one does except the same faithful band of pedants who have been clinging to the One True Meaning since the beginning. So maybe it's time to rethink the matter. Is this hopeless quest really a sensible use of your neurons and indignation?

the linked page does, indeed, say that.

Uh, well, you see, I was deliberately putting in a mistake to see if anyone would read that far down in my long comment. Good for you, you noticed!...

...no, that's a lie. *sob* I blew it. I take full responsibility and will resign from the Senate immediately. Seriously, that's why I always try to look stuff up, even when I'm 99.99% sure I'm right. Because when I don't, I get caught saying dumb shit like that. Mea culpa. (For Eideteker: that means 'my bad.')

Oh, and I ♥ teece.
posted by languagehat at 5:55 AM on January 9, 2006


Descriptivism = language evolves
Prescriptivism = intelligent grammar
Proscriptivism = just shut up, already!
posted by athenian at 5:57 AM on January 9, 2006


dhartung - I'm begthequestion.info guy, and I never got that email. I suspect you may have added an extra "s" to the email address. Do you still want it published?
posted by brownpau at 7:16 AM on January 9, 2006


Jimbob: So, you don't want to weaken language - but you seek to weaken the proper, technical use of the word "evolution" by using it to mean something that can be directed.

That's not evolution, that's intelligent design!
posted by theorique at 7:32 AM on January 9, 2006


Yeah, but what about the misuse of indie?
posted by ludwig_van at 8:10 AM on January 9, 2006


You (and your tiny cohort of fellow pedants) use it to mean petitio principii, for reasons of elitist self-affirmation you prefer not to examine too closely.

Well, fuck you very much. I explained my reasons above -- I want to keep the short way to describe "begging the question", as in my line of work I run into people accidentally begging the question all the time, and I've even been known to do it myself on occasion.

I don't mind the people who use the phrase incorrectly (insofar as they could damn well "beg for the question" if that's what they want to do) just because they've heard others use it and misunderstood what it's really for, as I do those who know what it's for and defend their right to abuse it out of a misplaced anti-elitism.
posted by Aknaton at 8:46 AM on January 9, 2006


I want to keep the short way to describe "begging the question"

"Circular argument" is short. Why not use it? Because people might understand what you meant without your impatiently explaining it to them?

I don't mind the people who use the phrase incorrectly

You don't seem to understand what "incorrectly" means.
posted by languagehat at 8:55 AM on January 9, 2006


Has anybody here ever, ever been confused when somebody said "that begs the question", because they thought the person was talking about a fallacy of presumption when in fact they meant "raises the question"?

Eh, for me it's been the other way round! when I first came across "begs the question" I just assumed it meant "raise the question", all the time. Then when I found it also meant the 'petitio principii' logical fallacy I started getting confused... it's not always clear from the full sentences which sense of "begs the question" is being used. I also don't understand how 'petitio principii' became "beg the question" in the first place. I'm not a native English speaker, and I'd been used to the Latin translated literally, as in French, petition de principe, although, that doesn't really sound a lot clearer either... (maybe instead of blaming the English translation we should blame the Latins? or Greeks? Or whoever it was. Kind of selfish of them not to come up with a clearer way of saying it and leave all the trouble to posterity...) But in conversation or writing, outside of philosophical texts, I'd always been used to it being called "circular reasoning/argument/logic". So the English "beg the question" has always been a bit of a problem for me.

So, the way I solved the problem in my mind is more or less what dhartung wrote - I think of both senses as "raising the question", but, when used as the actual petitio principi thingy, I think of it as raising the question this way: "ok so you're saying something is so because it's so, but why is it so in the first place? you're just assuming it is" - so the question is raised about the assumption used in that circular reasoning; whereas in the other looser sense, I think of it as actually raising a related but different question (not a question about the assumption in a circular reasoning).

It may sound screwed up but I swear for me it works. Btw, I don't particularly care about the descriptivist vs. prescriptivist debate on this, I only care about distinguishing the two senses when I have to translate from English. It can be tricky. So yeah I also wish people used "circular reasoning" instead. It'd make it all a lot simpler...
posted by funambulist at 9:41 AM on January 9, 2006


Oh great. Now we're going to have an argument about incorrectly.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:43 AM on January 9, 2006


Actually, I realised dhartung is saying a slightly different thing... but what I meant is, I actually find the "wrong" use of "beg the question" clearer than its use as "circular reasoning", also because it's the first use of that phraase I met in English, so when I see a "beg the question", I just instantly read "raise the question" - can't help it, and it works quicker this way for me - then I look at what comes before and next, the full sentence, and just try and detect which kind of question is "raised", a sort-of "question" about the assumption fallacy being used (if there is a circular reasoning in the sentence being referred to), or an actual related question literally prompted by the preceding sentence.

And because of all that complication, I hate this phrase equally in both senses.
posted by funambulist at 9:59 AM on January 9, 2006


Using "begs the question" instead of "raises the question" mostly bothers me because, grammatically speaking, it is blatantly incorrect.

But hey, if anyone, such as news anchors, want to come across as sounding retarded, that's up to them.
posted by illiad at 10:28 AM on January 9, 2006


grammatically speaking, it is blatantly incorrect.

Could you elaborate? I'm genuinely curious as to what you mean.
posted by languagehat at 10:31 AM on January 9, 2006


What I find more interesting than arguing who's more correct in their question-begging is the fact that some basic ways we use language are changing. Well, that's a stupid statement - language always is changing. I think, however, that one could make an increasingly solid argument that the textual form of english is becoming the primary one. Perhaps not quite true yet, but it's getting closer - and certainly the textual form is an increasingly large chunk of common usage, and hence will have an increasing effect on the language.

Written language is a fairly different animal - a lot of the cues we rely on to convey contextual meaning and resolve ambiguity are gone. A lot of the "conversational retry" goes away. So on and so forth. So, to all you pedants and anti-pedants: what's this all going to mean? How do you see language adapting to this change? R we 2 C nthng but IM-speak? Should we perhaps expect, even hope for, a return to longer - more ornate - forms of Written Language, as providing more Structural Hooks on which to hang the articles and participles dropping from the disappearing Scaffolding of Verbal Usage?
posted by freebird at 10:35 AM on January 9, 2006


Could you elaborate?

Of course. Unless I'm missing something very basic, "It begs the question" makes no sense on its own. It's a sentence fragment version of, I think, "It begs for the question to be asked."

Did I just make myself look like an asshat? My command of English grammar is mostly intuitive, and although I'm pretty good at it, I know I'm not perfect.
posted by illiad at 10:55 AM on January 9, 2006


Should we perhaps expect, even hope for, a return to longer - more ornate - forms of Written Language, as providing more Structural Hooks on which to hang the articles and participles dropping from the disappearing Scaffolding of Verbal Usage?

I love it. :-)

But to answer your question: I think what we need is a middle-of-the-road solution. I've always felt that people need to monitor their speech more closely than they do. Perhaps due to all of the public speaking I've done over the last ten years I've become very conscious of what words come out of my mouth. I've managed to remove filler phrases such as "and I was like" or "y'know" almost entirely from my everyday speech, and I've become very selective in the words I choose to use when expressing myself.

This isn't to say that I don't use slang or that I can't trash-talk as well as the next gangsta, but I take care in what I say and how I say it. When I say something, I try very hard to say precisely what I mean. I avoid superlatives unless they're justified, for example.

I suppose the "begs the question" issue is simply a poster child for my position that as communicators I think we are becoming more lazy, collectively. Perhaps naively I rather hope for a time when we can all take some pride in the way we communicate with one another, "y'know"? :-)
posted by illiad at 11:04 AM on January 9, 2006


It's a sentence fragment version of, I think, "It begs for the question to be asked."

Nope, it's basically rooted in a mistranslation of a latin phrase, and the "true" or "original" meaning is almost the opposite of the one you posit - though the latter has become the common usage, for obvious reasons. There's links in the above thread that explain both sides in pretty good detail.
posted by freebird at 11:21 AM on January 9, 2006


Sorry: "There are links", of course.
posted by freebird at 11:25 AM on January 9, 2006


Sorry, I should have written: "It's trying to be a sentence fragment..."

Evidently I didn't try hard enough. :-/
posted by illiad at 11:25 AM on January 9, 2006


the "true" or "original" meaning

These are two entirely separate things. The original meaning may have been as a (mis)translation of the Latin, although to prove that would require showing that the phrase had never been used in any other way before, which I don't think anyone can do. (To take a parallel case that frequently agitates language-lovers, do you know what disinterested "originally" meant? Wrong; the earliest citations are for the meaning 'Without interest or concern; not interested, unconcerned'; the meaning 'Not influenced by interest; impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced' developed later.) The true meaning (if you insist on using a loaded word like "true"; I'd use "current" myself) is the one now used by the vast majority of English speakers, namely 'raise the question.'

"It begs the question" makes no sense on its own. It's a sentence fragment version of, I think, "It begs for the question to be asked."

1) It's not used on its own, it's used as a lead-in to the question itself: "That begs the question of whether correctness can be defined in a way that will satisfy everyone."

2) Why is "It begs the question" any more senseless or ungrammatical than, say, "I beg your pardon"?
posted by languagehat at 11:45 AM on January 9, 2006


Why is "It begs the question" any more senseless or ungrammatical than, say, "I beg your pardon"?

It's even more of a sentence fragment? "I beg FOR your pardon" vs. "It begs FOR the question TO BE ASKED."

It also doesn't help that it has another, "proper" meaning entirely, and hearing supposedly educated news anchors use it incorrectly is a bit shocking. These are, of course, the same people who say things like "he hung himself" instead of "he hanged himself."

Or maybe I am indeed just a throwback who likes language to sound dignified rather than vulgar.
posted by illiad at 11:49 AM on January 9, 2006


illiad: You don't seem to understand what a sentence fragment is. It's an unscientific term basically meaning a sentence without a verb (the Oxford Companion to the English Language, for instance, lumps such sentences under "Irregular structures"). I beg your pardon and That begs the question are perfectly good, complete sentences.

And what gives you the idea that forms you like and/or use are "dignified" and those you don't are "vulgar"?
posted by languagehat at 12:02 PM on January 9, 2006


languagehat: thanks for the correction. Guess I should pull my Strunk and White out of storage. ;-)

And what gives you the idea that forms you like and/or use are "dignified" and those you don't are "vulgar"?

Subjectivity. Aren't we all like that?

"Vulgar" in the sense of "common," by the way. Pardon me while I bring my nose down a few thousand feet.
posted by illiad at 12:05 PM on January 9, 2006


The true meaning [...] is the one now used by the vast majority of English speakers

You've committed a petitio principii fallacy! We're arguing about whether common usage or original meaning determine the "true" meaning, and you're saying I used "true" incorrectly because I used the former rather than the latter.

I've come around to your view on the question-begging issue, but I think you're a little cavalier in dismissing any but the descriptivist position.

Actually, as we've discussed before, I think we both hold pretty reasonable postions, but the discussion is more interesting if we assume more extreme positions. So I tend to put you in the Strict Descripivist camp while I make noise about the Decline of Western Civiliation As Evidenced By People Who Say They're Doing "Real Good."
posted by freebird at 12:31 PM on January 9, 2006


Eideteker: I would argue that within the term "evolution" are the specific (and purpose-designed) terms of natural and artificial selection. I used evolution in the broader sense; you thought I meant natural selection. This is exactly the kind of miscommunication and imprecision I'd like to reduce.... BtQ is likely a lost cause, but we can at least try to agree on what things mean.

Which seems to assume that having a universal language or correct meanings valid across all communities, subcultures and domains is a good thing. If we see the evolution of language as analogous to the evolution of biological organisms, then we must consider that linguistic drift between communities in relative isolation will mirror genetic drift in populations in relative isolation. The end result is that "evolution" will have a very precise meaning in journals for evolutionary biology, and a different but equally precise meaning in journals for applied linguistics.

freebird: Which I find preposterous, as well as the notion that precision isn't a valid goal.

But here you miss something. Precision as a goal is only good when coupled with accuracy. Precise language converges tightly on a shared meaning. Accurate language comes close to a specific meaning. Precision alone is not going to remove ambiguity because you are never going to have a definition of a specific meaning shared between all linguistic communities of practice. I suspect that "We found 12" is both precise and accurate in the language of mine rescue workers. In the language of journalists and hopeful company executives, "found" has a different target of meaning.

freebird: Written language is a fairly different animal - a lot of the cues we rely on to convey contextual meaning and resolve ambiguity are gone. A lot of the "conversational retry" goes away. So on and so forth. So, to all you pedants and anti-pedants: what's this all going to mean? How do you see language adapting to this change? R we 2 C nthng but IM-speak? Should we perhaps expect, even hope for, a return to longer - more ornate - forms of Written Language, as providing more Structural Hooks on which to hang the articles and participles dropping from the disappearing Scaffolding of Verbal Usage?

Well, I'll just pull the appeal to authority out of my hat and say that I work with some of the people who have written the books on computer mediated communication. It seems to me that you are pulling out a rather impossible ideal out here in assuming that there has ever been a single mode of written text in any language. In fact, I'm a bit amused how people panic over IM-speak which is something that has been reinvented multiple times over the last 200 years for written language transmitted using media that is expensive in time or money. (Examples include abbreviation codes used for telegraph, newspaper adverts, and radio.) Structual differences exist in the language used in professional letters, journal articles, printed news, non-fiction and fiction.

The basic conclusion is that language evolves (in the linguistic sense of that term) to meet the constraints and needs of different modes, media, and communities of practice. Not much different from the last few thousand years of language development.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:34 PM on January 9, 2006


And to throw a bone to the prescriptivists, enforcing the norms of language is part of the nuts and bolts of how communities of practice work.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:40 PM on January 9, 2006


I think we both hold pretty reasonable postions, but the discussion is more interesting if we assume more extreme positions.

Shh! Don't tell 'em it's faked!


*breaks chair over freebird's head, pounds chest*
posted by languagehat at 12:41 PM on January 9, 2006


Good points KJS. I certainly agree that there's not much qualitatively different in the development of current written language and its interaction with spoken forms. I do think, however, that there is a quantitative difference. I think the time is not far off when for a significant portion of people, written communication is a more important part of their lives than spoken. That is something new in history, I think, and seems likely to have profound changes on how we use language.

writes "Petitio Principii" on forehead, climbs up on corner of ring to perform patented body slam, the "flying prescriptivist", on Languagehat while he's pounding his chest. "I'm gonna go at you Hammer and Thongs! I'm gonna break you like an eggcorn with my poweress! I gonna get you real good!"
posted by freebird at 1:06 PM on January 9, 2006


"It begs the question" makes no sense on its own. It's a sentence fragment version of, I think, "It begs for the question to be asked."

1) It's not used on its own, it's used as a lead-in to the question itself...


No, no, no. The whole point of it is that it's circular - it begs whatever question it claims to be answering. That's why it's a nice little phrase that evokes the problem well, like the image of the snake eating its tail. The answer is begging the question.

/not going to get into another prescriptivist/descriptivist debate around here, but wanted to clarify that, as I think it is a nice, neat phrase for a very important and quite common fallacy
posted by mdn at 1:25 PM on January 9, 2006


languagehat: I appreciate your opinion, but not the flavor of it. I do not intimidate or humiliate anyone. I bring the issue up only when I think the listener will appreciate the information, or will receive some use from it. Thank you for disillusioning me about the respect I felt for you as someone very rational and thoughtful. Thank you also for supporting my point about standoffishness impairing consensus in communication.

I know what mea culpa means. (Do you know the meaning of the word condescend?) Where do we draw the line between something that's outside the language and something that's inside? You use the dictionary, but what if there's none handy? Where do the dictionary makers, and for that matter, average citizens, decide what's used in English and what's outside English? Using the dictionary is just circular because who shapes the dictionary? According to you, it's the people. According to your conception of me, I'd say the "dictionary people" (not what I've actually said, if you've read my comments, or bothered to ask me for clarification).

And you still didn't tell me how to effectively use petito prinicpii in written or spoken communication more effectively than begs the question. You have here 'begged' the question in the sense of definition 3a; you've evaded it. If you're going to scold me like a school teacher for something you only think I've committed, you could at least teach me something. One lesson you've given me is that from now on, I will think twice before trying to learn something through debate. Thank you for taking all my comments in this thread and disregarding them entirely so that you can grind your axe against prescriptivists who are assholes about it. Because that behavior makes you an asshole. It's just another way of trying to feel smarter than someone else (what you seem to be accusing me of), and it's a pointless oneupmanship that's circular and self-defeating.

I know you're smart. You know what? I'm smart, too. Everyone on MetaFilter has their area of expertise; we're all smart (and I say that with Intelligence studies covered in my area of expertise). How about taking advantage of yours to inform rather than to inveigh? I usually enjoy reading your comments because you are almost uniquely dispassionate (note: not disinterested) while still being informative. Please humor my curiosity; don't condemn it.
posted by Eideteker at 5:40 PM on January 9, 2006


Eideteker: And you still didn't tell me how to effectively use petito prinicpii in written or spoken communication more effectively than begs the question.

I know I probably shouldn't get into this but... quoting languagehat above: "Circular argument" is short. Why not use it?

Really, what is wrong with it? is it "too many syllables", like Aknaton said? well, compare:

"that's begging the question"
"that's a circular argument"

I can't count syllables in English, but they look the same length to me.
posted by funambulist at 1:29 AM on January 10, 2006


Thank you for taking all my comments in this thread and disregarding them entirely so that you can grind your axe against prescriptivists who are assholes about it.

There is probably truth in what you say—I do get extremely pissed off by the "bad English = dumb person" brand of prescriptivism, and my animus may make me more indiscriminate than I should be. To the extent that's true in your case, I apologize. I certainly never questioned your intelligence, and I knew perfectly well you knew what mea culpa meant—I was just making a jab at your pretense that petitio principii was some kind of unintelligible Latin phrase rather than good English. But as for your curiosity, I think in amongst the snarking I've been reasonably educational, and as for the specific question, see funambulist's comment.
posted by languagehat at 4:40 AM on January 10, 2006


I thank you for taking the time to reply.
posted by Eideteker at 7:01 AM on January 10, 2006


Really, what is wrong with it? is it "too many syllables", like Aknaton said? well, compare:

"that's begging the question"
"that's a circular argument"

I can't count syllables in English, but they look the same length to me.


not that anyone cares, but as a lover of language not just for the ability to convey information, but for the actual direct experience of poetry, i think it's too bad 'begging the question' has got so confused. As i said above, it has an active immediacy that "circular argument" and certainly "petito principi" simply don't. It gives the sense that the answer itself is asking its own question (that is, the question it is meant in response to). "circular" does this more abstractly - like the difference between saying "eternal" and "endless" - to me, at least, 'eternal' sounds more static and conceptual, while 'endless' gives the sense of actual continuousness.

Of course, if so many find it so confusing, it isn't working very well - c'est la vie, life goes on, etc, but still a small loss.
posted by mdn at 8:48 AM on January 10, 2006


All of this begs the question of whether we've solved this dilemma.

(no it doesn't, and no it doesn't.)
posted by Balisong at 1:36 PM on January 10, 2006


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