Thursday, August 28, 2008

Grammar Girl begs the question

Bookshot A site I often visit for its entertaining podcasts on grammar (of all things!) is Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Grammar (Grammar Girl is the alter ego of Mignon Fogarty, and she also has a book). Recently, she examined the phrase so often used (and misused) in law school classrooms, "beg the question":

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? . . . Sadly, begs the question is used wrong a lot. . . . Many people mistakenly believe it's OK to use the phrase to introduce a clever or obvious question. . . . There are plenty of phrases writers can use when they mean "makes me wonder" or "raises the question." There's no hole in the English language that needs to be filled, so there's no reason to use begs the question improperly.

The quick and dirty tip is to remember that when something begs the question, it begs the question: what is your support for that premise?


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GrammarGirl is almost right. She's certainly right that people misuse "begs the question." But her explanation of what it means falls short. When you tell interlocutors that their argument begs-the-question, you're saying they are committing a very specific logical fallacy. And it isn't just: "what is the basis for your premise."

Begging-the-question is a form of circular reasoning. It means your debating partner is disguising his or her conclusion as a premise. Here's what the authors of the leading logic-textbook have to say about "begs the question":

"It is in fact the mistake of assuming the truth of what one seeks to prove. The 'question' in a formal debate is the issue that is in dispute; to 'beg' the question is to ask, or to suppose, that the very matter in controversy be conceded. . . . In an effort to establish the desired conclusion, an author may cast about, searching for premises that will do the trick. Of course, the conclusion itself, reformulated in other words, will do the trick very nicely." Copi & Cohen, Introduction to Logic 153 (2008).

Here's a classic example: "There is no such thing as knowledge that cannot be carried into practice, for such knowledge is really no knowledge at all."

Posted by: Ryan | Aug 28, 2008 3:21:48 PM

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