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Arts & Culture

What's the Deal with 'Begging the Question'?

LUKE BURBANK, host:

All right, now it's time for a new segment I'm doing in the twilight hours of my BPP time called Ways Trisha McKinney screwed up.

TRISHA McKINNEY: Is there special music for this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: I don't think so. Inside my head…

McKINNEY: Mm-hmm.

BURBANK: …there's always a special music. Okay, Trish, let's set this up.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Trish is our editor.

BURBANK: Yes.

STEWART: And she's right about 99.3 percent.

BURBANK: She's a three-time "Jeopardy" champion. She's probably the smartest person in this building. And I think this building has like 30 floors. But yesterday, in a little faux pas, what did you say on the show?

McKINNEY: Okay. So it was during The Most, and I was talking about a scientific study, about women pregnancy, physical makeup, whatever, and I said this begs the question about, you know, we're going to study pot bellies. Well…

STEWART: No, you didn't.

McKINNEY: Yeah, I did. I had no idea this was wrong.

BURBANK: …which is amazing because, as we just said, you're an editor and you know about almost everything and you catch - every day, you catch a hundred errors that I have inserted into the script. But I felt like, for once I could get on my high horse or my high office chair. I stood up on an office chair…

STEWART: He literally stood on a chair.

McKINNEY: He literally stood on an office chair to announce to the entire office…

BURBANK: Well, no, because you know what, it had happened a few times with different staffers and I just thought maybe we could try to nip this in the butt as it was nipped in the butt for me when I used this on NPR wrong a bunch of times. Well, it turns out that, you know, begging the question does mean something, but it doesn't mean the way that…

McKINNEY: Right, I…

BURBANK: …people tend to use it.

McKINNEY: I used it to mean, raises the question.

BURBANK: Right.

McKINNEY: And apparently everyone who misuses it pretty much does it for that purpose.

BURBANK: Right.

McKINNEY: And I had no idea it was wrong, so now, I'm going to find out why.

BURBANK: Well, we've got - yeah. We've got an expert here, Julie Temlyn. She's a proofreader. She's also the grammar blogger who calls herself Mrs. Write Right - word therapist. Julie Temlyn, welcome to the show.

Ms. JULIE TEMLYN (Owner, Temlyn Writing & Editing Services): Hi. Thanks. Glad to be here.

BURBANK: Okay. So we - raises the question is fairly obvious. It means you're sort of raising the question, but what the heck does begging the question actually mean?

Ms. TEMLYN: You know, I was actually doing a lot of research last night because I was trying to find an easy way to explain it. It's logical and that's why it's so difficult. The more I…

BURBANK: Like most things that are logical.

Ms. TEMLYN: research (unintelligible) uses I got.

BURBANK: What were you able to come up with?

Ms. TEMLYN: It's basically when a debatable premise is presented as if it were true. It's a logical fallacy. The easiest way I can find is that - an example from a new show. Someone says, she is wearing very loose clothes, this begs the question, is she pregnant? Now, it's debatable if she's pregnant, but the circular thinking brings one directly to thinking that she is pregnant. It's like an assumption.

BURBANK: But doesn't that raise the question? What you said just sounds like a perfect thought for raising the question.

Ms. TEMLYN: Right. It sound - well, raising the question, from what I read, people say begs the question should just be thrown out. We shouldn't even bother using it because it's so confusing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: Interesting.

Ms. TEMLYN: You should just say raises the question for the most part because if you use begging the question, it's, like I said, it's a logical fallacy that has been around since the - oh, I'm sorry - since the 4th century.

McKINNEY: So, you know, I was actually Googling around too because I went kind of down a grammar and usage rabbit hole yesterday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

McKINNEY: And I guess the question is part of the problem. We think of question as something, you know, with a question mark. It begs the question colon and then you give the question. But actually, the question in this case is the debatable point. So…

Ms. TEMLYN: Right.

McKINNEY: …it's not, you know - it doesn't beg the question and then you hear what the question should be.

Ms. TEMLYN: You know, that - thank you for reminding me. Actually, there is something else I found is that a question doesn't mean a sentence in an interrogative form in this - and because it's such an ancient definition.

BURBANK: Yeah, because in logic, there are all these - there are these formal principles of logic and what are called formal fallacies, you know, like a straw man, and these other things that are sort of when you're debating a point, things that are sort of - you know, not considered legit.

And begging the question is, I think, it is not a formal fallacy. It's kind of on near that list of mass subs. So it sounds like the safest thing to do since I still feel like we only have a vague understanding of what begging the question really means is to just - let's just take it off the list. Let's salt the Earth so it never grows again…

Ms. TEMLYN: Yeah.

BURBANK: …and just say raises the question.

McKINNEY: Hey, note to staff, from now on, BPP policy, never use beg the question in any segment or a story you write.

STEWART: The editor has spoken.

BURBANK: That's right, from atop her office chair. And get down because that's dangerous. That's some kind of ultra(ph) violation.

Trish McKinney, thank you for coming on.

Julie Temlyn, AKA Mrs. Write Right, word therapist. Thank you for your time.

Ms. TEMLYN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.