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OnWords: 'It Begs the Question'

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While I prefer to let language run its course, I get upset when people misuse the phrase “it begs the question.”

Using “it begs the question” creates confusion rather than clarity and tames an otherwise powerful tool of argument.

The most common use of “it begs the question” is actually its misuse. A journalist or pundit will unthinkingly analyze some minor bit of scandal and say “it begs the question” when he really means “it brings up the question.”

Begging the question is, properly speaking, a logical fallacy, a form of circular reasoning in which the conclusions and the premises assume one another.

Here’s an example. As you may recall, George W. Bush concluded that, because we could not find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Saddam Hussein must have been hiding them.

He was begging the question: concluding that the weapons were hidden is predicated on the fact that they existed. The lack of evidence for them does not establish that they were ever there, much less that they were hidden.

Since this type of faulty reasoning is common among legislators, lobbyists, and political message-makers, we need to preserve the terminology of question begging in order to call them out on it.

I suspect people misuse the phrase “it begs the question” in order to add the illusion of sophistication to otherwise bland observations.

That’s too bad: our reason is blunted when this phrase is used poorly and far sharper when it’s used well.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.