Sunday, 23 March 2014

Apologies in advance for my pedantism

My posts usually have some kind of historical bent, even when discussing language. I usually write about etymology or language history, not modern usage.  I am also convinced that the internet is replete with rants about such things, but I am going to throw in my lot with the rest of the grammar police in the fight against that crime against English that is the misuse of the phrase, "begging the question."

I cannot count the number of times I have heard people say, "that begs the question..." followed by the question that the situation poses.

For example, "We want to put a swimming pool in the yard."

"That begs the question of how much it will cost."

NO. Do not say this. It raises the question, or leaves the question, or fails to answer the question, or any number of other words, but is not an example of begging the question. If someone is begging the question, you don't specify the question.

Begging the question is a rhetorical error, similar to a tautology. It means that a question has been posed, and the answer uses the question itself in the answer, and therefore does not answer the question. It has begged the question.

I am put in mind of a time when I had just started working in administrative law, in the area of oil and gas development. In reading some documents, I kept coming across the word, "berming." I didn't know what berming meant, so I called my brother, the pipeline engineer and said, "Cam, what is berming?"

He said, "Oh, that's when you berm something."

I believe I may actually have responded, "Cam, that's begging the question."

This is a very simple example, but it can be more subtle. Another example would be asking someone why they are so strong, only to have them respond that it is because they have strong muscles. It doesn't actually answer the question. It begs the question.

The difference between this and the swimming pool example is the novelty of the question that still stands at the end. If the answer raises the same question that was asked initially, the answer has begged the question. If the answer gives rise to new questions, then it just raises questions. It doesn't "beg the question."

I hope this has been clear. If not, and if you wish to spare us grammar curmudgeons a little of our daily irritation, know that it is always safe just to say, "that doesn't answer my question."

In my case, the question is always, why do I care? My answer is, because it matters to me. Now THAT is begging the question.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

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