Beg the Question

“O shameless beggar, that craveth no less than the whole controversy to be given to him!” (William Fulke, “Heskins parleament repealed” – 1579)

“Begging the question” has nothing to do with a question in the usual sense of the word. I beg the question if I assume you accept as fact the basis of my statement without asking if you do. All authorities are clear on this: “to assume without proof” (OED2); “to use as a basis of proof something that itself needs proving” (The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words); “requesting an opponent to grant what the opponent seeks a proof of” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy).

Beg the question is usually used incorrectly for “raise/pose/prompt/leave the question” or “demand an answer to the question”. It is so seldom used correctly that the proper meaning is in danger of being lost. The confusion seems to be caused by the feeling that a question left unanswered is begging for a reply.

Guideline: mentally change “begs the question (of) whether” to “assumes you accept that”. If this makes nonsense of the statement, “begs” is incorrectly used for “raises”, etc.Also, the use of a question mark or the indefinite article – “begs a question” – should alert the writer or editor that “beg” should be “raise”.


The cost of the 13 cars was apparently a modest £95,000. Which begs the question: why bother buying them? (STim 17/4/94 p. 3.12)

Her question, the one never before asked, was: how do dogs conduct themselves if left uncoaxed and undisturbed in normal circumstances? This of course begs the question: what are normal circumstances? (IoS 22/5/94 Review p. 32)
“Raises the question.” But it begs the question (of) whether modern dogs’ circumstances are ever natural.

Questions are definitely begged. What do pre-cancerous growths, for example, have to say about cancerous ones? And what about cancers outside the colon? (Obs 15/10/00 Magazine p. 35)
“Are raised” or “demand answers”.

“Yes, we have had problems with this before,” said the waiter, begging the question of why the hell it was still on the list. (STel 1/10/00 Magazinep.53)

He has been described in awe as “Oliver Sacks as agony aunt”. Which begs the question, who would want Oliver Sacks as an agony aunt? Mind you, Leader’s last book, Why do women write more letters than they post? , also prompted a few questions, the first being, “do they?” (IoS 13/2/00 Culture p. 13)
“Begs” should be “raises”. “Prompted … they?” could be “begged the question of whether they do”.

Crackdown on market researchers who beg questions and bend answers [head] … a number of [Confederation of British Industry] members complained of a “leading question” in the survey which encouraged respondents to say they were in favour of the euro in principle. (IoS 9/9/01 p. 1.6)
Yielding to the temptation to appear clever, the sub-editor responsible for the head has equated the posing of a leading question with begging the question.

“… taking half the brain out of an animal while keeping it alive.” Which begs the question, as does all of White’s work: why would anybody want to do that? “For two reasons. …” (STel 16/7/00 Magazine p. 21)

Not, you understand, because he craved status, but rather to do something worthwhile “again” (which begs so many questions). (STim 12/9/04 p. 1.30)
“Which begs the question” is the correct form to subtly imply that he had never done anything worthwhile.

“Wife? You want wife?” Huge almond eyes begged the question. (Obs 30/1/05 Escape p. 5)
Context suggests that “begged” without “the question” is meant here.

Comments by Ms Royal and other socialists imply that the right is using her [older] brother’s role in the Greenpeace bombing to smear her. However, this begs the fact that her own [younger] brother made the allegation. (ITim 3/10/06 p. 1.3)
“Ignores the fact.” The Right should be capitalised for clarity.

It all begs one key question: why? (STim 21/10/07 Magazine p. 41)


[James Joyce’s] Ulysses is indeed guilty of obscenity, “properly defined”, he asserts. … “Properly defined” begs the question. People’s ideas of obscenity vary enormously, which means there can be no accurate definition. [in a review of James Joyce and Censorship by Paul Vanderham] (STim 1/2/98, p. 8.1)
This is a rare example, in a classic structure, of the proper use of “beg the question”. In the reviewer’s opinion, obscenity cannot be properly defined, so stating that Joyce is guilty of obscenity “properly defined” demands that the reader accept that it can be properly defined, without the author’s having established that it can be, or having asked the reader if he agrees that it can be.

All of which begs the question about whether such roles, even if they boost women’s salaries, really constitute progress for actresses in the long run. (STim 1/5/94 p. 9.17)
This is the correct use, but “question (of) whether”. It is not a question about anything.

And yet several questions beg to be asked … (IoS 19/12/99 p. 1.18)
This is what most people nowadays seem to think “beg the question” means.

The palm for outrageous question-begging goes to the Who Made God “argument”. … “The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.” … but why on earth should we assume this? (IoS 26/11/06 ABC p. 23)

… the fact that Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar, while both Ron Howard and Mel Gibson have the shiny gold statuette on their mantelpieces, illustrates how Oscar gets it wrong as often as not. (ITim 27/1/07 Weekend Review p. 6)
Although the term is not used here, this statement begs the question of whether – assumes everyone agrees that – Hitchcock was a more deserving director than Howard or Gibson

.… and prompting the question: what’s wrong with a soap and flannel? (Obs 19/9/04 OM p. 55)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: