Another round of begging

I got a thought-provoking comment on my last post about begging the question. Lev made the quite correct point that in the traditional sense of the phrase, ‘beg’ has a very unusual meaning (‘presuppose’, ‘prejudge’ or ‘take for granted’), which you don’t see anywhere else. This oddity, he argued, counts against the intelligibility and usefulness of the traditional meaning.

What this made me realise is that in the modern, more commonly used sense of the phrase, exactly the same thing is true.

‘Beg’ normally means ‘plead’ or ‘request’, but in ‘that would beg the question of how you’re going to afford it’, it means something such as ‘raise’, ‘provoke’, ‘lead to’, ‘make important’, ‘motivate me to ask’, ‘require us to talk about’ and so on – a collection I find suspiciously motley. This kind of begging, unlike the usual kind, can be done accidentally and unknowingly, and can be done by an object, a fact or a situation as well as by a person.

Are there other phrases that use ‘beg’ in this way? I can’t think of any.

(NB In neither sense of BTQ does ‘beg’ mean ‘ask’.)

I looked at the OED online entry for ‘beg’. There’s nothing that connects to the modern sense of BTQ, but here’s what it says on the traditional sense:

To take for granted without warrant; esp. in to beg the question: to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.

It gives some historical examples:

1581 I say this is still to begge the question.

1680 This was to assert or beg the thing in Question.

1687 Here hee’s at his old way of Begging the meaning.

1788 Begging the question is when the thing to be proved is assumed in the premises.

1852 Many say it is begging the point in dispute.

And gives “to take for granted without basis or justification: a statement that begs the very point we’re disputing”, as well as the clearly related “to fail or refuse to come to grips with; avoid; evade: a report that consistently begs the whole problem”.

So, this sense of ‘beg’ needn’t attach to ‘question’, although nowadays that’s where you’re overwhelmingly likely to find it.

This leaves us with two meanings for BTQ: one has a centuries-old pedigree but is nowadays unknown to (I assume) a majority of people; the other is more recent (I don’t know how recent) but is now much better known; each, though, uses ‘beg’ very idiosyncratically.

As I noted above, the modern sense does seem to be less sharply defined, with a menagerie of semi-related paraphrases. This really smacks of a mutation based on a misunderstanding of the older meaning. But it clearly caught on.

Language, like all social conventions, changes. That’s fine, and when a change becomes widespread, lexicographers and amateur internet grammar geeks have to acknowledge it. But when a change is based on a mistake, when it leads to a meaning that itself isn’t obvious from the usual meanings of the words involved, when the new usage is so effortlessly replaceable, and when the old usage persists – among a significant minority, who find the new usage an annoying distraction – then we’re entitled to acknowledge it without endorsing it.

This change gains us nothing we didn’t already have and muddies some once-clear waters.

My policy: I never use BTQ in the modern sense and always change it in editing; even if the meaning would be clear, it would risk alienating some of the readers and it would propagate the muddiness. When the older sense is appropriate, I use/accept it only if most of the audience are also likely to understand it; if not, I use some more roundabout but more accessible substitute.

The point of language is to communicate. Writing should focus not on some supposed set of immutable, objective rules but on its readers, even if they are a diverse bunch. And it’s on the grounds of communicative clarity, not pedantry for its own sake, that I think we should restrict BTQ to its traditional meaning – but used cautiously.

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  • Warsaw Will  On November 25, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Probably like many others, including not a few fresher philosophy students who wrote to the Guardian lately, I was only aware of the new ‘wrong’ usage till lately.

    But I can’t understand why they can’t coexist. In the logical sense the statement ends with ‘question’. This begs / is begging the question. But in the newer sense, it always has to be followed by a reason – This begs the question as to bla, bla, bla / of whether bla, bla, bla etc.

    And as the Guardian pointed out, if you’d never heard it before, the newer meaning at least makes some sense without explanation, while the old meaning has to be carefully explained, almost as a technical term.

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