“Begs the question” is everywhere—newspaper headlines, broadcast reports, magazine pieces—but it’s hardly ever used correctly. Generally, writers intend it to mean “prompts the question” or “raises the question,” when, in fact, the meaning is a lot more complicated than that. The misuse of the phrase has causes scores of grammar nerds to take their cause to the internet and protest the gross misuse of the phrase.
To “beg the question” is actually a logical fallacy in which one makes a conclusion based on the assumption that a previous statement is true, when in fact it lacks substantiation. Example:
“Nickleback is a great band.”
“How do you figure?”
“Because they have sold a ton of records.”
Now, because the second statement is based on faulty logic (a ton of record sales does not equate to a great band), someone could correctly say that my comment is “begging the question.”
Here is an example of how the term is often used incorrectly:
“Each of Nickleback’s albums sounds identical to the last, which begs the question: Why do they even bother recording new songs at all?”
See what I mean? The most difficult thing about the conundrum is that the incorrect use (which is incredibly ubiquitous) actually seems to make more sense, as explained by someone writing in to Grammar Girl: “I keep seeing it as a way to say The question begs to be asked or The question that should be asked.”
But this use of the term is 100 percent incorrect (no matter how much the opposition insists the new definition be adopted). Grammar Girl offers an even handier explanation of the concept:
“I remember what begs the question means by thinking that THEE argument raises a specific question—it begs *the* question—What’s your support for that premise? OR more informally, What does that have to do with anything? You use the phrase begs the question when people are hoping you won’t notice that their reasons for coming to a conclusion aren’t valid. They’ve made an argument based on a lame assumption. The question is What’s your support for that premise?”
If you’re still having trouble grasping it, that’s OK. Grammar Girl offers a great (and detailed) explanation on her site. However, the most important thing to remember is that “begs the question” does not mean, “asks the question.” And because the opportunity to use the term correctly is unlikely to come up in everyday conversation, I’d recommend you just don’t use it. Period.
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