Grammar Guerilla: Begging Versus Raising The Question

Guerilla-GorillaThe rampant confusion of begging the question (petitio principii) for raising the question is such a pet peeve that I was shocked to find this morning that I had not addressed it here. Even if it has been addressed repetition is the mother of instruction. To beg the question is to assume the conclusion in the premises of a syllogism. Here is an example of a classic syllogism:

  1. All men are mortal.
  2. Socrates is a man.
  3. Therefore Socrates is mortal

Number 1 is the major premise. Number 2 is the middle or minor premise and number three is the conclusion. This syllogism is both true and sound, i.e., the premises are evidently true and the conclusion follows from the premises.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives an example, which apparently some have criticized: “’Are you still a member of the Ku Klux Klan?’ is a fallacy because either response implies that one has in the past been a member of the Klan, a proposition that may not have been established as true.”

This is fallacious syllogism. There are an implied premises in the question and a conclusion (which is also one of the premises).

  1. The KKK exists.
  2. You are a member of the KKK.
  3. Therefore you are a member of the KKK

The conclusion is a mere repetition of the middle premise. A better argument would be:

  1. The KKK exists.
  2. You have been seen wearing a white robe and a hood and attending Klan meetings.
  3. Therefore you are a member of the KKK

To be sure, it is possible that the hood wearer is not actually a Klan member. He could be Chip Hardesty (Jimmy Stewart), in The FBI Story (1959), working undercover to investigate and prosecute the Klan but ordinarily the syllogism would follow. If we added “and your robe is marked Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan” to the middle premise we might avoid the post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after which, because of which) fallacy. If we eliminate this fallacy, however, the internet might collapse in itself, since this fallacy prompts and sustains much social media discussion.

The middle premise is the equivalent of “Socrates is a man.” There are probably implied premises in both syllogisms: it is assumed (correctly) that the KKK is evil and that anyone in the KKK is tainted with that evil. When Dispensationalists accuse Reformed theologians of teaching so-called “Replacement Theology” they are begging the question, i.e., assuming what must be proved.

Almost without fail today, whether on a media news program, in print, or in causal discussion, when one hears or reads  the phrase “begs the question” (or some variant) it is used to mean, raises the question. Example: “Senator, you have proposed removing all American troops from Afghanistan. This begs the question, how do you intend to control the Taliban?” This is the typical abuse of begs the question. The interview means raises the question and she thinks that they mean the same thing. They do not.

On its face this confusion might seem an odd thing since raises is hardly an obscure or antiquated verb. Why then has begs replaced raises? The answer is in two parts: rhetoric and psychology. Evidently begs is perceived to have more emotional appeal than raises, i.e., it is perceived to be a more emotionally powerful and affecting verb. I am reasonably confident that it is also used because it sounds more learned. Consider the phrase, at the end of the day. In the early 1990s virtually no Americans were using this expression. Today one hears college football coaches using it in their post-game interviews. This means, I take it, that the expression has penetrated to every segment of society and is truly popular. Why? First, it came to us from the UK and Americans think that British English is more sophisticated. Second, it gives the appearance of intelligence. The phrase end of the day is a metaphor and metaphors seem smart. In the same way, begs the question must seem a more intelligent thing to say than raises the question even though it is an abuse of the expression, which, ironically, makes the user sound less rather than more informed.

So I raise this matter to inform you of the difference and I beg you not to confuse them.

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  1. That means, I suppose, that we’re going to have to contend with the confusion this side of the pond soon?
    The classic example in my teenage years was said to be “Have you stopped beating your wife?”. When our class asked our Head of Maths, he calmly replied “No” (falling then rising tone, meaning “You’re not phasing me at all”). A correct answer, because although the question implied that he had been beating his wife, it did not state it. On the same grounds, you and I can correctly answer “No” to “Are you still a member of the Ku Klux Klan?” (Assuming you are not a member of the Ku Klux Klan – I know I’m not).
    As regards “Replacement Theology”: When I die, I will not be a replacement for what I was on earth, I shall be the same person, but without the body I had on earth. Similarly, the Visible Church isn’t a replacement for Israel, she is the same Israel, but without the Christ-rejecting Jews he had before, but with the Christ-professing Gentiles grafted in.

    • isn’t the phrase “Have you stopped beating your wife?” generally used
      in academia to rebuff someone who’s asked you a loaded question, so
      if someone says to you “Are you still a member of the Ku Klux Klan?”
      you can rebuff them with “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

    • Maybe, Robert. My last encounter with it was during my (high) schooldays, so I wouldn’t know.
      I was going to write “until recently, it could only be used on half the population (and that ought still to be the case)”, but I’ve realized that, as far as logic is concerned, it was always usable on anybody.

  2. na I left the KKK as the Neo-nazi skinheads had a better retirement scheme,
    How tall is the corn these days in southern california, and the all the germans said…

  3. the 1st line of my statement would be raising the question, as well as a fallacious
    syllogism as we all know that the socialists provide the the best welfare programs
    & the 2nd line could be construed as begging the question, due to my use of taboo
    Nazi humour

    • Robert, could you please explain the taboo Nazi humour? I don’t get it. Even when I cut out the second “the” (of the three).

  4. Sorry John I was referring to my own post above! it was a reference to the phrase,
    How tall is the corn in …, which was apparently a way common germans mocked
    the (nazi) roman salute, Gengi Khan thought the KKK & nazis were a bit leftist

    • Roger, Robert. In one central European country, rather than the corn, it was the midden that was in view (German word used was “dreck”). There was also the Bavarian comedian, Karl Valentin, who on stage made the salute, saying “Heil … heil … heil … Only this once, WHAT is his name?” (One story continues it with “You know a black Mercedes passed by outside and there wasn’t an SS man in it”, at which point he was bundled off to “gaol”, but he survived, and returning to the stage after the war, said “You know, I was wrong. There WAS an SS man in it”).

  5. by the way what is the difference between a grammar guerilla and a grammar
    nazi, the’re both leftist, suppose when any one rebukes someone or corrects
    someone there’s always the chance of upsetting the apple cart & being derogated

    • But you mustn’t give these beggars anything, just tell them they’re welcome at your soup kitchen, provided they don’t beg too close to it (Police will close it down if it is seen to be encouraging beggars to come to the area).

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