Begging The Question: How To Use It Correctly

Q: I’ve been told that I often misuse the phrase “begs the question” in my writing. Can you explain to me how to use this phrase correctly and give me an example? Thanks. —Anonymous

A: “Begging the question” is a phrase that’s commonly misused. In fact, even I misused it once in an editor’s note for my e-newsletter (special thanks to loyal reader Rachel Heslin for catching my misstep, though she’s now off my Christmas card list—kidding … I don’t even have a Christmas card list). But the important thing is to get it correct in the future, so let’s dive in and define this phrase.

The common misconception is that “begging the question” means to raise or ask a question: This week’s writing prompt begs the question, “What are babies really talking about? That is wrong with a capital “W” and, if space permits, an exclamation point. “Begging the question” is a type of logical fallacy that deals with unproven premises and conclusions, which the sentence above doesn’t contain.

Merriam-Webster defines “begging the question” as “to pass over or ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled.” In other words, it means that you’re stating as fact what you are trying to prove. For example: Brian Klems is funny because he writes humorously. The conclusion is that Brian is funny. The premise assumes that he writes humorously. There’s no evidence in the statement that supports the claim that he’s funny. Therefore, the sentence should read: Brian Klems is funny because he writes humorously, but that argument begs the question of whether he writes humorously or not.

The term “begging the question” is just circular reasoning, so be sure to use the phrase only when that circular reasoning is being applied. If it’s not, use “asks the question” or “raises the question.”

But seriously, though, I am funny. I promise.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

7 thoughts on “Begging The Question: How To Use It Correctly

  1. AvatarJoseph J. Judge

    Thank you, Brian, for addressing the "begging the question" question (which has been begging for attention for ages!). I really think the problem stems from all those bright young things fresh out of J-schools (the many mediocre J-schools, not the few genuinely rigorous ones) who think they’re demonstrating erudition when, in fact, they’re simply displaying ignorance. Because they’re young, pretty or handsome, and have glorious hair they get on television without ever having received a meaty education. The result is all those pretty faces on empty heads that don’t know the difference between a subject and an object (hence think they’re being meticulously precise in saying something like "It was important to he and I…" They’re also the ones who, never having actually thought about the meaning they want to convey, say "He could care less…" when they want to tell you about a character who really couldn’t care less.
    Yes, ours is a wondrously flexible, growing and living language and we should welcome new speaking patterns that help us communicate better. But please, let’s continue the battle against usages that defy logic and language so long as we have the breath to do so.

  2. AvatarLaura Stein

    I think what people are trying to say is something stronger than "raises the question"–something more like "forces the question". I think that makes an excellent substitute for the incorrect use of ‘begs the question".

    That gets under my skin only slightly less than the popular complete reversal of meaning of the words "uncategorical" and "categorical". People in MSM have been using "categorically" or "categorical" to mean "without exception" when it means the exact opposite–"only within a cetain category" or "in limited instances". Whereas "uncategorical" or "uncategorically" (depending on whether you need an adj. or adv.) means in all situations or categories, in other words, "without exception". Fortunately, usage of both words seems to be waning this year compared to the previous few years when it was all the rage.

  3. AvatarAM Amodeo

    I like to think of it as "beggars the question" — that is, makes of the question a beggar by assuming the answer. No doubt it was originally understood in that sense. Anyway, easier to remember that way, for me.

  4. AvatarJohn roach

    Thanks for answering this. I’ve personally never been called out for this, mainly because I’ve seen so many other people called out for that I never use it.

    Now I know what it means, and I can call people out, too!

  5. AvatarRobyn Coburn

    Thank you! The casual and incorrect use of this phrase is one of my pet peeves. To me it’s a scientific term, appropriate to discussions of cognitive dissonance in research studies, so I get bugged when I hear it being used to mean "makes one ask the question" by reporters and commentators. It really, really irritates me when researchers use it incorrectly in their abstracts! They definitely should know better.

    And yet…I tell myself I should get over my petty annoyance because English is a fluid, developing language, and meanings and popular usages change over time and blah, blah, blah. Trying to convince myself, I guess. But I am left still growling inside.