The Times Style Guide begs a question (or not)
The ‘Times Guide to English Style and Usage‘ (Times Books, London, 1999), setting out the stylistic and grammatical rules for that once majestically authoritative organ, comes a conspicuous cropper over that old chestnut, ‘beg the question‘, seeking to correct one howler only to commit another even worse (because much more common):
beg the question do not confuse with ask the question. To beg a question is to evade it.
No, it isn’t. It’s a much more sophisticated concept than that:
Beg: 6. To take for granted without warrant; esp. in to beg the question: to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.
1687 Settle Refl. Dryden 13 Here hee’s at his old way of Begging the meaning. 1680 Burnet Rochester (1692) 82 This was to assert or beg the thing in Question. 1788 Reid Aristotle’s Log. v. §3. 118 Begging the question is when the thing to be proved is assumed in the premises.
[Oxford English Dictionary, Second ed.]
"Beg the question: 1. In strict use, the English equivalent of Latin petitio principii, used in logic to mean the ‘fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself’ (Fowler, 1926). Gowers (1965) cited as an example, capital punishment is necessary because without it murders would increase. 2. In general use, the meaning is much more likely to be ‘to evade a difficulty’ or ‘to refrain from giving a straightforward answer’. Examples: Let’s…beg the question of just who was in love with whom–H Jacobson, 1986 [etc]" [Burchfield, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 1996]
Ah! Perhaps that’s where the Times Style Guide got that idea that begging the question means evading it! Bob Burchfield is of course infallible, but with his distinguished lexicographical background the great man was inclined to be too lenient with mistaken modern usage ("In general use"). In refraining from denouncing that wretched ‘evade’ usage as simply wrong, Burchfield was being descriptive, not prescriptive, as another, more hard-hearted successor to Fowler might have been. But in any case, much the commonest misuse of ‘beg the question’ in current down-market parlance is surely neither in the sense of ‘ask the question‘ nor ‘evade the question‘, but almost invariably ‘prompt the question’: "When you say you didn’t pay for your peerage, it begs the question whether you expected it in return for your loan to the party even if you didn’t actually buy it." Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Let’s agree that to beg the question is to ‘[found] a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself‘. It’s neat, it’s elegant, it conveys a subtle concept in just four short syllables. And it’s right. Don’t let’s allow the Visigoths to hijack it to mean something entirely different for which an alternative, perfectly clear and concise, formulation is anyway available.
While we’re not on the subject of ‘evasion’, we should also pronounce a curse on those who think that prevarication is something to do with procrastination or delay. At least the Times Style Guide gets that one more or less right, although it doesn’t quite get the central concept of deviation: to quote the OED again, to prevaricate is
To deviate from straightforwardness; to act or speak evasively; to quibble, shuffle, equivocate (from the Latin prævaricari — to walk crookedly, hence, to deviate from a straight course, hence from the path of duty)
— which doesn’t beg any questions at all.
Confession: I suppose I had better admit that the December 2005 Times Style Guide online does make a rather feeble attempt to correct that entry in the 1999 book:
beg the question has a confusing variety of meanings, so is best avoided. Especially, do not confuse with "ask" or "raise" the question.
Cowards! What use is a style guide that says how a phrase shouldn’t be used but is scared to say how it should? And to crown that little evasion, the online Style Guide actually fouls up the book version’s entry on ‘prevaricate‘ by asserting, quite wrongly, that it means ‘to defer action, to be dilatory‘ — exactly what it doesn’t mean. It’s that confusion with ‘procrastinate’ again. The Times ain’t wot it used to be: Ichabod!
PS: The Guardian online Style Guide is spot on with begging the question and perfectly acceptable on prevaricate. Times editorial staff please copy.