It is not uncommon to hear someone say something like this: Well, if what you say is true, that only begs the question: Should we continue to allow houses to be built so close to the shoreline? The phrase begs the question has lately extended (some would say overreached) its established borders to now mean poses a question to be answered. This change in meaning points to one of the great tending forces in language: change.
There are those who observe that life in its most encompassing view seems to be characterized by opposing forces: dark and light, day and night, fixed and moving. The thought is very old, and it could help explain in part the creative tension that characterizes any kind of art we undertake seriously, including the art of language. Writers and speakers array themselves across a range of assumptions, with conservative at one end and liberal at the other, conservative here meaning the tendency to preserve a way of doing things, and liberal meaning the tendency to advance beyond those bounds. The conservative likes to dwell somewhere ever in sight of principles, whereas the liberal wants to move out to see what’s beyond the next hill.
Such tendencies in varying balance seem to be a part of every personality we know, including each our own, and when it comes to how we use language, we are left in great measure to find our place on the spectrum of conservative to liberal. We think sometimes that dictionaries and usage manuals will help us infallibly decide troubling points of grammar and phrase, forgetting, however, that these works, though indispensable, are themselves written by authors who assume a certain place and preference on the continuum.
So, for example, with the sentence at hand (Well, if what you say is true, that only begs the question: Should we continue to allow houses to be built so close to the shoreline?), a more preserving critic might decide that the new meaning of the phrase begs the question is a hill too far, that we should reserve the expression for its original meaning: to assume what you are trying to prove, which is a mistake in reasoning. When a prosecuting attorney says grandly to the jury in his final remarks, I urge you to find this criminal guilty, he himself is guilty of forgetting (apparently) that whether indeed the defendant is a criminal or not is the very reason the jury has been assembled; he is, in other words, assuming what the jurors must decide in their deliberations.
This mistake in reasoning has the technical Latin name of petitio principii, a request or begging (petitio) to stand as a premise or beginning (principii) of an argument what is really the conclusion to be determined. To commit this fallacy, as does the attorney, is not to pose a question—an interrogative sentence with a question mark—but to misorder a logical inquiry. So the new interpretation of the expression begs the question has arisen from misunderstanding the meaning of the word question: not question meaning asking for information, but question meaning inquiry, as when we say, This is a question of justice and fairness.
And therein would lie sufficient reason to those of more preserving bent to disallow the new use: confusion over the meaning of the word question. One can beg off a question, which means to ask to be excused from answering a question, but you cannot beg a question to pose a question. And this would be their position (and mine) because language is at best a rough and ready way of communicating the subtleties of meaning. Though arguments can be made on both sides, changes that stem from confusion can justifiably be thought suspect at first, and each such change should be brought before the court of one’s own thoughtful consideration of how modern English can and should work. By reading and writing more closely, each of us can come to rely more confidently on our own decisions, with reasons that sustain those choices. And those reasoned choices, after all, are what make up our very style.
Please look for more on this topic in Thursday’s post.