During the past few weeks, two readers of this blog commented on Jasper Spierenburg’s use of the expression “begging the question“. As far as I know, there is nothing wrong with it, so why the comments? To check my (non-native speaker) intuitions, I resorted to Google N-gram, which I set to English generally, searching for both begs the question and prompts the question (the suggested alternative). And look what I found:
So on the basis of these data, it is clear that begs the question (the blue line) is the most frequent form. (I didn’t find any differences for American or for British English from this general overview.)
What then is going on, why do people object to the use of begging the question when it has always been more frequent than prompting the question? Could it be perhaps that due to its enormous increase since the 1950s or so, people suddenly get critical of the phrase?
There is a prescriptive norm against the use of “begging the question” to mean “raising/asking the question”, though I believe this may be the most common usage these days. It also refers to a logical fallacy, in which the initial premises of an argument already include the conclusion (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question). I’m not sure which usage came first, but in my experience people who know about the logic-related meaning and hold prescriptive language attitudes are not shy in telling people off for using it in the other sense. Perhaps your team could investigate this, as I’d be interested to know relative frequencies of usage of each kind, and which meaning came first!
You’ve picked the wrong (more appropriate) alternative for an Ngram comparison. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=begs+the+question%2Craises+the+question%2C+prompts+the+question&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cbegs%20the%20question%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Craises%20the%20question%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cprompts%20the%20question%3B%2Cc0
Well, not really wrong: I just took the suggested alternative. And now there are three variant verbs: beg, raise and prompt. Any other verbs that people would prefer to beg? Thanks for you comment though.
I’ve certainly never used or heard others use ‘prompts the question’. To beg the question and to raise the question to me are different: I’d be more likely to use ‘begs the question’ in terms of describing circular reasoning, although if others choose to use it as an alternative for ‘raises the question’, that’s fine by me.
I don’t care how many people use “begs the question” to mean “raises the question,” it’s just plain idiotic, as it makes no sense, and it robs the language of a useful distinction. Like my mother used to say: “Just because other kids are doing it doesn’t mean you should!” If we prescriptivists don’t stick our finger in the dike to slow down linguistic change due to lazy thinking–or utter absence of logical thought–we will soon be at a point where we won’t be able to understand our own grandchildren.
My thinking on “begs the question” has changed over the years, but using “begs the question” to mean “raises the question” is a long-standing point of contention in English. Here’s my latest article on it: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/begs-the-question-update
I came across this post only today via Twitter. “Begging the question” has nothing to do with raising, prompting, or otherwise asking a question. There is only one correct meaning of the phrase: “basing a conclusion on an unproven assumption.” Dictionaries, by suggesting otherwise, only promote ignorance and error.
Thank you for this, Robert: I absolutely agree. It is what happens more frequently to usage features, people start thinking about what expressions mean, and then come up with their own ideas about why something would be wrong. There is a lot more like this on our Bridging the Unbridgeable blog, and we look foward to hearing more from you.