Perhaps more than any other Supreme Court justice, the late Antonin Scalia cared a great deal about language, often spending time carefully consulting several dictionaries and usage books. He took pains to use words precisely.
Misuse of the phrase was Scalia’s biggest pet peeve.
According to a recent interview with Bryan A. Garner, a legal lexicographer and friend of Scalia, when anyone used anything but the traditional meaning of the phrase — circular reasoning — Scalia would insist that the phrase’s original meaning was the only correct meaning.
What’s circular reasoning?
As Garner notes in his new book, “Garner’s Modern English Usage” — which Scalia had seen not long before he died — this is the strict, traditional meaning of “beg the question”:
to base a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof or demonstration as the conclusion itself
The formal name for this logical fallacy, Garner writes, is “petitio principii,” but in English it’s often referred to as circular reasoning or circular argument. Garner gives some examples:
“Reasonable people are those who think and reason intelligently.” (This statement begs the question. What does it mean to think and reason intelligently?)
“Life begins at conception, which is defined as the beginning of life.” (This comment is patently circular.)
But a lot of people just don’t use “beg the question” that way anymore, Garner told Business Insider. For many, today the phrase means “invite the follow-up question”:
[T]he use of beg the question to mean raise another question is so ubiquitous that the new sense has been recognised by most dictionaries and sanctioned by descriptive observers of language. Still, though it is true that the new sense may be understood by most people, many will consider it slipshod.
In a recent discussion on CNN about Donald Trump, Hadley Heath Manning said [emphasis added]:
But it sort of begs the question: How can they control this? And isn’t it really up to the voters as to whether they’re going to stay with Trump or move away and try to find another Republican?
Given the nature of the Supreme Court’s work, you could imagine how such “misusage” could get on Scalia’s nerves day after day.
“He thought I was a little too soft on ‘begging the question,'” Garner said. “He was insisting that ‘begging the question’ must always be about circular reasoning, but of course the empirical evidence is that very few people use it that way today.”
Problems with ‘fixed meaning’
Scalia’s insistence on a single, correct meaning of “beg the question” is unsurprising when you consider his conservatism. He preferred old meanings, not newer ones — originalism, fixed meaning.
When it came to the Constitution, Scalia’s view was that interpretation of the law should be based on what people living at the time of its adoption would have said the meaning was. But as is the case with “beg the question,” words change their meanings.
One rather famous example, which Garner revealed to Scalia, was “nimrod.” The word means “great hunter” to people born before 1950. Thanks to Bugs Bunny, the cartoon character, to anyone born after 1950, it means “idiot” or “dummy.” This astounded Scalia.
You might think twice before using this troublesome phrase, especially in formal writing or public speaking. In lieu of “beg the question,” you could skip it altogether and go with “evade the question” or “raise the question,” depending on which meaning you want, the older or the newer, respectively.
But if you want to carry on Scalia’s legacy, you could insist on the “circular argument” meaning — and even hand out little cards to abusers of the phrase.
Read the full Business Insider interview with Bryan A. Garner here.