begging the question

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Jul 5 15:00:52 UTC 2001

I have on several occasions heard Gary Cohen, a radio broadcaster for
the NY Mets, use the phrase "beg the question" incorrectly.  This past
weekend, in wrapping up a four-game series between the Mets and the
Atlanta Braves, he said something to the effect that "This series begs
the question: Can the Mets go 2 for 37 with runners in scoring position
and still win 2 out of 4 games against a team like the Braves?"  I had
resolved to post this to this group, as a matter of some interest, but
before I could do so I heard Michael Kay, a Yankees radio broadcaster,
give the elected All-Star Game lineup and say something like: "This
begs the question: what players most deserve to be chosen by the
managers to fill out the team."  These quotations beg the question: is
it becoming a common usage to use the phrase "beg the question" as if
it means "asks the question" or "raises the question"?

I see Cohen's use of this term as differing somewhat from Kay's.  The
question that Cohen begged can have a simple "yes" or "no" answer, or
more precisely, "evidently, since it has just happened".  When Kay
begged his question, he was not looking for a short answer, but opening
a topic for discussion.

I believe that Cohen is more or less young.  Michael Kay has described
himself as 40.  He is from NYC.

I do not describe this usage as "incorrect" without much thought, nor,
indeed without some trepidation, since I know that it will subject me
to the scorn of the anti-prescriptivists among us.  However, the
phrase "begs the question" has a history that shows it to have a
specific meaning, (as does the history of the word "nonplus", discussed
here several months ago).  I do not know another concise way to express
the historic meaning of "beg the question".  Cohen's and Kay's notion
of the meaning of the expression can be expressed with "asks the
question" or "raises the question".  But nothing in this paragraph
should be taken to imply that I am unconscious of the folly of
shovelling shit against the tide.  If people choose to use "begs the
question" in the Cohen/Kay sense, it will happen.  But I don't need to
stand on the sidelines cheering, either.

The rants that have been posted here in the past against perceived
prescriptivism have reminded me at times of the communist-baiting of
the 40s and 50s, but somehow colorless.  A more vigorous vocabulary is
needed, like "prescriptie bastard" or "prescript-symp".  Just a


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African
Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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