The American Heritage Dictionary lists two meanings for the phrase beg the question:
1. To assume to be true what one is purporting to prove in an argument.
2.To call to mind a question in a discussion; invite or provoke a question.
If you are a language stickler, you may be stomping your feet and yelling WRONG at sense 2. The first, more traditional, sense is often described as the only proper meaning of the phrase. But in actual practice, the second sense is quite widespread. Widespread is one thing; acceptable is another. Thanks to the Usage Panel, we’ve been able to determine how acceptable the second sense is to a representative group of careful writers. We balloted the Panel in 2013 and presented the results in a new Usage Note:
Historically, logicians and philosophers have used the phrase beg the question to mean “to put forward an argument whose conclusion is already assumed as a premise.” Usually, when people beg the question in this sense, the conclusion and the assumed premise are put in slightly different words, which tends to obscure the fact that such an argument is logically meaningless. For instance, to argue that caviar tastes better than peanut butter because caviar has a superior flavor is to beg the question—the premise that is taken as given (that caviar’s flavor is superior) is essentially identical to the point it is intended to prove (that caviar tastes better). But since at least the early 1900s, laypeople have been using beg the question in slightly different senses, to mean “raise a relevant question” or “leave a relevant question unanswered.” When used in these senses, beg the question is usually followed by a clause explaining what the question in question is, as in That article begs the question of whether we should build a new school or renovate the old one or The real estate listing claims that the kitchen is spacious, which begs the question of what “spacious” means. These senses of beg the question are so well established that they have nearly displaced the original sense in everyday usage, but they are still often frowned on by traditionalists, especially those with training in philosophy; in our 2013 survey, the sentences above were judged acceptable only by slim majorities of the Usage Panel—55 and 58 percent, respectively. By contrast, a sentence using the phrase in its original sense (When I asked him why we must protect every endangered species regardless of the cost, he said it was because every species is priceless, but that just begs the question) was considered acceptable by 79 percent of the Panel. The newer senses of beg the question will probably continue to flourish because “begging a question” suggests “begging for,” or “raising” a question. However, this broader usage will also probably continue to draw the ire of philosophers and others who use the “circular reasoning” sense of the term, for which there is no good substitute, and do not want to see its technical meaning lost.
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