When to beg the question, and when not to

Phrases and terms have a way of getting mangled over time and it can be hard finding clear examples of what is and isn’t right.

Philip Corbett, a deputy news editor at the New York Times who’s in charge of its style manual, does a fine job explaining how to use ‘beg the question’:

Not long ago, I gently noted (again) our frequent misuse of the phrase “beg the question.” I pointed out that in precise usage, it does not mean “to raise the question” or “to beg that the question be asked” or even “to evade the question.” Rather, it refers to a circular argument; it means “to use an argument that assumes as proved the very thing one is trying to prove.”

… I’ll try to clarify the meaning with a pair of made-up examples. Imagine that we’re discussing Lindsay Lohan.

YOU: I can’t understand why the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous. She’s not that important or newsworthy.

ME: What? Of course she’s important and newsworthy! Lindsay Lohan is a big deal. Why, just look at the newsstand. People magazine, The Post, you name it. She’s everywhere.

YOU: That begs the question.

ME: Huh?

Your use of the phrase is correct. In arguing that Lindsay is important enough to merit heavy news coverage, I cite as evidence the fact that she gets heavy news coverage. It’s a circular argument that begs the question.

•••

But imagine this conversation.

ME: I can’t understand why all the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous.

YOU: I’m sure they do it just to sell papers and magazines.

ME: Yeah — which begs the question, why do people want to read about her?

YOU: That’s not begging the question. That’s simply raising the question.

ME: Huh?

My use is incorrect, though it is becoming extremely common. There’s even a Web site dedicated to stamping out this abuse of the term (begthequestion.info). You can print out handy cards that explain the correct meaning, and pass them out to strangers if you hear them misusing the phrase. (I am not endorsing this approach.)