It’s the rare language-usage error that makes me emerge from my usual apathetic shell, but this one does: the epidemic misuse of the phrase “begs the question.” I almost never see it used properly these days. Writers -- and, perhaps worse, their editors and copy editors -- seem to think “begs the question” means “provokes us to ask,” or “makes me wonder,” or something close to that.
An example is in today's Wall Street Journal. Michael Judge, in an opinion piece about Amiri Baraka’s loathesome WTC poem, writes that “New Jersey’s previous poet laureate, Gerald Stern, recently told the New York Times he was ‘shocked at the stupidity of Somebody Blew Up America,' saying ‘Lies never serve good, and there was hate in it.’ Which begs the question: was there no hate in Mr. Baraka’s earlier work?”
No, no, no, no!
What “begs the question” in fact means is “to assume the truth of an argument or proposition to be proved, without arguing it” (thank you, Oxford desktop dictionary).
The statement “We’re going to publicize the hell out of this excellent blog,” for instance, begs the question of whether or not this blog really is excellent. A not-bad way of understanding this meaning is: You beg a question when you skip over a matter that’s disputable. The question begged isn't what the statement makes you think or wonder, but is instead the matter that’s skipped over.
And here I withdraw back into my shell, there to await the arrival of the real language buffs, who’ll finetune and/or correct me. As well they should: in order to thrive, language (like a city) needs policing. The superego has its functions too.