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What is a moot point?

I can’t think of a time I’ve seen it used to mean anything other than “previously decided” or “debatable only as an academic exercise”. And yet I’ve recently been encountering people claiming that this is wrong, wrong, WRONG, and that moot in fact means quite the opposite: a point that is open for meaningful debate. A representative example of this claim from the recent “20 Common Grammar Mistakes that (Almost) Everyone Makes” article*:

Contrary to common misuse, ‘moot’ doesn’t imply something is superfluous. It means a subject is disputable or open to discussion. e.g., The idea that commercial zoning should be allowed in the residential neighborhood was a moot point for the council.”

Of course, if (almost) everyone misuses a word the same way, then it’s probably not a misuse. But setting that point aside, if moot really means the opposite of how it’s normally used, how could that have happened?

Let’s start the answer by noting that non-American English speakers might be wondering what I’m going on about. It seems that moot means something different depending on which side of the Atlantic it’s being used on. A little history: the OED reports that adjectival moot arose in legal parlance to describe hypothetical cases used as practice for law students. Thus the earliest meaning of moot referred to a debate without practical consequences, whether because the case was hypothetical or because it was a real case that had already been decided.**

Between the emergence of adjectival moot in the 1500s and modern times, its meaning spread out in two directions. One is that of American English: a point that is unrelated to law, is debatable, and whose debate has no practical consequences. Whether I should have been so enamored of The Juliana Theory’s “Into the Dark” when it was on heavy radio rotation in 2000 is a moot point, because I can’t go back and tell my younger self that the song was maudlin emo crap. But it’s also a debatable topic, because my interest in that song got me to seek out their album, which had better songs and which later led me to find out about a split EP containing Dawson High’s song “Port Matilda”, which had a huge influence on my artistic sensibilities throughout college. Points can be made on either side, but the decision can’t change.

The other direction in which moot spread was to a point that was just generally open for debate, whether or not it had practical consequences. This is what’s being claimed above to be the “correct” meaning, but here the author’s running afoul of our curious American tendency to confuse the British usage (which is what it is) for the correct usage. In my experience with American English, it’s at least the much less common meaning if not non-standard.

Of course, the two meanings are not very far apart. A point that some of the complainants overlook about the American meaning is that while the debate doesn’t matter, the point is still debatable. Sometimes it may not feel this way; Lynne Murphy cites an old Saturday Night Live sketch “The Question is Moot”, where Jesse Jackson is a game show host who repeatedly interrupts his contestants’ answers by declaring that the question is moot — i.e., unworthy of debate or speculation.

But this, crucially, does not mean that it could not be debated. It doesn’t work for points that are settled and beyond debate. Don’t these sentences sound strange?

(1a) ?Whether cats built the Sphinx is a moot point.
(1b) ?It’s a moot point whether Wayne’s World inspired Bridge Over the River Kwai.***

There is one sense of moot that I haven’t touched on yet. Looking through COCA, I found this example:

It shrank a bit, though its generous size should make the reduction moot.”

This seems to be a recently emerging meaning, for an undeniable but negligible matter. As far as I know, this is limited to predicative usages (e.g., the reduction was moot but not *the moot reduction). And maybe that’s what all this fuss is about, but I don’t think so.

Lastly, the word is moot, not mute. The standard pronunciation rhymes with boot. The pronunciation may be slowly moving toward mute, but at the moment, rhymes-with-boot is the dominant pronunciation in Standard American English.

*: For expert deconstruction of this article, see Arnold Zwicky and Stan Carey.

**: If we consider the nominal moot as well, it goes back to Old English and could refer to a non-hypothetical court as well; a moot was any assembly of people, but especially one with judicial purposes. The OED notes that this usage persists, but I think it has to be restricted to British (or at least non-American) Englishes, because all the contemporary occurrences sound like nonsense to me.

***: In case you worry that the oddness of these sentences stems from the oddness of their topics, compare with That cats built the Sphinx is an idiotic notion, which sounds fine to me.

At Lynne Murphy’s long-ago tweeted suggestion, I listened to a debate between Grant Barrett, of A Way with Words, and Matthew Engel, of the BBC article from a few months ago that complained about American usages infecting British English. Through the first 15 minutes, both men were being quite reasonable, saying things that barely conflicted with each other and agreeing that there wasn’t much difference in their positions. (Largely because Engel had gone away from the bombastic note of his Americanisms article and now seemed genuinely surprised that Barrett thought Engel believed in what he had written.)

And then the floodgates opened. Barrett had just mentioned that when his show gets emails from peevers complaining about some supposed error, he replies with a suggestion that they look into the error, and think about why they dislike it. (Would that I had such patience in my responses!) Barrett noted that the peevers often follow this advice, learn something about how English works, and report that these once-teeth-gnashing usages have become at worst minor annoyances.

Engel didn’t care for this attempt to educate away such prejudices and went on the attack, presenting a disingenuous series of questions intended to reveal that Engel is both older and more British than Barrett. Therefore Engel concludes: “So you have no experience of how British English is spoken except on a brief stay?” Barrett responds: “I study language for a living … from an academic perspective, I have a very good understanding of the differences between the two dialects.” Engel’s response:

“So someone who’s lived in this country, not just me but everybody else who’s responded and supported [my column], they’re non-experts. They’ve lived through the changing of the language, but they’re non-experts. They know nothing about the way that language has changed, but what they need is you to try to teach them.”

I wouldn’t say that non-linguistically-trained language users know nothing of their language, but otherwise, I think Engel’s getting it! Wait, he’s elaborating further:

“I think that’s the most patronizing piece of nonsense I have ever heard in my life.”

Nope, never mind.

I don’t find the stance that experts know more than other people about stuff to be patronizing, but even if Engel does, that’s too bad because it’s, you know, true.* And it’s a rather odd position for Engel to take, since he’s a journalist, and journalism is kinda all about telling people things they don’t know — and often don’t know they don’t know.

Think about it analogically: I’ve been in a lot of motor vehicles, but that doesn’t make me an expert on their history, nor does it qualify me to figure out why the engine pings when it’s cold. I watch a lot (a lot) of football, but I couldn’t design effective plays. I cook a lot, but I’m not a master chef. I’ve walked through rainstorms, but I’m no meteorologist. Language is the same; everyone uses it, but only some people study it.

I don’t think that you have to be a linguist by training to be knowledgeable about English usage, but you do have to think about English scientifically. You need to check against available data when drawing your conclusions. You need to be aware that one’s own knowledge can be spotty or skewed. If you don’t even do those two things, you’re a crummy expert on English usage.

We, all of us, linguists and speakers alike, are unreliable narrators of our linguistic experience. We imagine our usage to be clearer than it actually is.** We have information that varies from spot-on to way off. We don’t realize what we say. If my own mother said that I speak one way, I’d have to look it up to be sure.***

Engel is right on exactly one point: it’s not that speakers of English know nothing of English. It’s just that they don’t know everything. As you readers know from my (occasional?) mistakes, my personal knowledge of English is limited. I was shocked to find out that some people say no end instead of to no end. I didn’t understand the double modal until a few years ago. I suffer from the recency illusion, from an unavoidable preference for Pittsburgh English, from a belief that my usages are probably standard. That’s why when I put together a post, I try not to say “X is right” or “X is wrong” based on my personal intuitions. I do due diligence, look up others’ research on the subject, delve into the archives, and map current usage. Before I say that I do or do not say something, I try to look through my own writings to see if I do, and if so when. Even then, with all of that going into it, I still know there’s a decent chance that I’ll only have part of the story and you will fill in the rest with comments and emails.

To have Engel saying that he and the other peevers have no need for linguists checking their work? Engel, who offered five Americanisms to start his column with only one of them actually coming from America? I’m sorry if he finds it patronizing for Barrett or anyone else to tell him he’s wrong and he ought to have consulted a linguist, but his indignance doesn’t magically make the linguists wrong and him right.

In fact, nothing of Engel’s position makes sense. He’s proposing that experience, not expertise, is sufficient, but I know a lot of people with bad spelling or grammar who are older than I am. Should I abandon the English I use and convert to theirs? After all, they’ve lived through the changes. And how does Engel know about Americanisms? I know he’s older than me, but I don’t think he’s spent as long in the U.S. as I have. Doesn’t he have to defer to me on Americanisms? Sorry, Engel old bean, but you know how you called hospitalize a “vile” word? It’s actually glorious. I know because I have more experience in American English than you.

*: There’re separate issues in that many so-called experts are not, that some have axes to grind, and that experts are only experts within their field of expertise, but the fact remains that experts are generally experts and non-experts generally are not.

**: The first time you ever read a transcript of your own speech can be an embarrassing, even unbelievable, affair. We do not speak anywhere near as clearly as we write (excepting people who write badly as well). See, for a not-too-bad example, this snippet of a telephone conversation.

***: Murray, Frazer, and Simon, writing on the usage of “needs done” in the Midwest, had one student tell them that he’d never used the construction in his life and that it was inappropriate for formal writing. Sure enough, he had written it in a paper he had submitted to them.

It’s time for another entry in the intermittent S-Series, which looks at words that exist both with and without an s, and tries to figure out what motivates the choice between the options. Today, we’ll look at toward and towards. (I wanted to make some sort of “untoward” joke here, but it’s not coming together, so let’s just jump right in.) Brian Clark at Copyblogger, in a post listing a bunch of warmed-over peeves, confidently informs us that

Towards is wrong in American English. It’s toward. I went 41 years not being sure about this one.”

(h/t Stan Carey) Unfortunately, Clark has replaced his 41 years of uncertainty with a foreseeable future of misplaced certainty, hardly a worthwhile trade. Toward is more common in American English, but towards is by no means incorrect. It’s simply fallen out of fashion in American English:

You can see it yourself. Towards used to be the standard, but starting around 1840, it began a major decline that has persisted to the present day. Toward gobbled up towards‘s usages, and is now about 3 to 4 times more common than towards in American English. (Interestingly, although probably coincidentally, this is approximately the inverse of the ratio that existed back in the 1800-1840 steady-state period.)

Does this make towards “wrong”? Of course not, no more so than the fact that large is a more common word than big in written English makes the latter wrong. Towards is less common, and perhaps even non-standard (given that it’s still appearing more often than huge in writing suggests that non-standard is an overstatement), but by no means is it wrong.

No, the more appropriate position to hold is that of Jack Lynch, author of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, who considers two forms interchangeable, or John Lawler, emeritus from Michigan, who finds the difference to be limited to an abstract sense.

Meanwhile, you non-American readers may be wondering what all this hubbub’s about, because towards is the clear standard in British English. But watch out; a time of troubles may be approaching, as it looks like the long dominance of towards may be coming to an end for you as well:

Toward has almost doubled its market-share in the last ten years. Just do me a favor, Brits, if you would: as toward becomes more common, can you not grouse about it as a pernicious Americanism? I’ll do what I can over here to get us to stop calling your towards wrong.

Summary: Toward is more common in (modern) American English, and towards is more common in British English, but neither is wrong. Use whichever you feel fits better in your sentence.

The S-Series so far:
S-Series I: Anyway(s) [02/03/11]
S-Series II: Backward(s) [06/14/11]
S-Series III: Toward(s) [08/29/11]
S-Series IV: Beside(s) [12/07/11]

[I’m betting that many of you readers already have heard enough about the BBC’s recent Americanisms article, which was just a list of 50 pet grammar/word peeves supplied by their readers, without any evidence of American origin. Mark Liberman, Lynne Murphy, Lane Greene, and John McIntyre all have great posts on the matter already. I’ve got the background at the beginning if you need it, but if all you want are my thoughts on the matter, you can skip ahead to the seventh paragraph. If you don’t want to hear my thoughts, you can skip this post entirely.]

We Americans aren’t very good at paying attention to the rest of the world. But a lot of us have been recently paying attention to the whole News Corp phone-hacking scandal, and I’ve seen a couple of pieces congratulating the British media for holding various parties’ feet to the fire — i.e., for doing a good job at what journalists are supposed to do. So I don’t understand why, when there’s all these good feelings about British journalism, the BBC seems intent on mocking the very idea of journalism as a purveyor of truth.

It started with a column talking about Americanisms that have invaded British English. It’s dressed up with an investigative headline, “Viewpoint: Why do some Americanisms irritate people?”, but it never bothers to look at that question, and after a brief bout of simply recording Americanisms without too much denigration, it devolves into name-calling. Power outage is an “outrage”, hospitalize a “vile word”. (You know how it’s said that you’ve lost the argument when you resort to ad hominem attacks? What about when your argument is calling words bad names?)

[American holding a "These Colors Don't Run" sign, Brit carrying a Union Jack]

This is the image the BBC used to illustrate the column, making it clear they weren't about to defend American English.

Columns like these don’t require a lot of fact-checking; after all, it’s just somebody stating their opinions loudly. As far as I can tell, the only facts to be checked are that the supposedly American words really did come from America. Apparently that is too much to ask. Mark Liberman points out that the first five Americanisms in the column — the ones from a paragraph in which the author talks about his lengthy journalistic career and his hope that he is reliable — aren’t reliable. Only one of the five “Americanisms” (lengthy) is actually from America.

Suppose you published something 20% accurate. Would you try to correct it? Or would you just double down? The BBC went the latter course, posting 50 complaints from their readers about other “Americanisms”, apparently without even a thought of fact-checking.

A few of these supposed Americanisms sound utterly foreign to me, such as wait on to mean wait for (#6), or a million and a half for one and a half million (#34), each of which seem more British than American to me. Others are standard forms presented as thought they were errors, like Scotch-Irish (#39). Scotch-Irish refers to the settlers in the Appalachians in the American colonial days, which means that it is unavoidably an Americanism. And, by the way, the standard form, as ably explained by Wikipedia and confirmed by the OED.

Some of these 50 might be American in origin, but I doubt many.* Lynne Murphy has a great set of counter-comments on the first 25 complaints and promises a follow-up for the other 25. Lane Greene at the Economist further debunked a selection of them. (My favorite, in response to “Is ‘physicality’ a real word?”: “Yes, first noted in a book published in London in 1827.”) So there’s no reason for me to say anything more about the specific complaints. Instead, let me tell you why I hate this sort of “completely passive journalism” (Murphy’s phrase).

I’ve been a bit preachy about journalistic integrity of late, but I have to say it once more. Journalism should never consist solely of asking people their opinions and then reporting it. Repeating lies (or mistakes) that are obviously lies (or mistakes) without noting that they do not fit with the truth is not journalism, or at least isn’t what journalism is supposed to be. Journalists are supposed to make truth clearer, not obscure it further behind popular opinion.

Oh well, it’s just a stupid little piece, right, and why am I concerned? Because pieces like this destroy my confidence in journalism. What does it mean when a news source cares so little about finding out the facts? Yes, the piece gets them hits (there were 1294 comments in the first day of the article being up, and it was sitting pretty at #2 on the list of the most visited stories when I first read it), but at the cost of trust.

If a news agency can’t be bothered to do its research on something so simple as whether or not a word originated in the U.S., then how can we trust their research on a war, on a political debate, on a phone-hacking scandal, where truth is murkier and people actively try to hide it? If they’re putting up garbage like this, putting webhits above accuracy, why should I believe that any of their other stories do it the right way and put accuracy above webhits?

[The most shared news items at the BBC, 07.22.11]

This is a very bad thing.

In their defense, the BBC did imply that these two pieces were not hard journalism. The first had a headline prefaced by “Viewpoint”, and the second starts by noting that these are only the most e-mailed examples of Americanisms. But the BBC has a duty not to promote misinformation, whether it be in hard news or soft. They may not have had evidence that these weren’t Americanisms, but I’d argue that they didn’t have evidence that they were, either. Perhaps they weren’t knowingly misleading us, but they were negligently misleading us, which isn’t much better.

I call it negligence only because it is so easy to determine that this stuff is wrong. You can tell in part by how fast the linguistics blogging community put together their responses. You can disprove it yourself by going to Google Books N-grams, typing in the terms, and comparing the usage in British and American English. You can look in the Oxford English Dictionary for the earliest attestations of the term. Thanks to the Internet, it is stunningly easy to do this.

A more forgiving person might say that it’s only easy if you already know how. Maybe the BBC doesn’t have anyone who knows how to do this. But that’s my point. It’s negligent to write about something you don’t understand without at least consulting with someone who does. And if they don’t bother to consult on stuff like this, why should we trust that they do on more obscure or time-sensitive topics like Malawian politics or the physics of magnetism?

Uninformed information and opinion are rife on the Internet, and cheap, too. Good information is rare and expensive. This is the one thing that can keep good journalism alive; the superior product. Too often a trusted news source forgoes the good for the cheap, and it’s killing journalism.

*: I looked up the first two complaints on Google Books N-grams, can I get a (US, UK) and least worst (US, UK), and I’m not seeing the US lead the way in either case. This is a little tough to compare because the y-axes aren’t the same across the graphs. That’s especially true for least worst; the 80s peak in AmEng seems to presage the 90s peak in BrEng, but the AmEng peak is only as high as the 70s plateau in the BrEng data. If anything, it looks like each time least worst peaks in BrEng, AmEng follows a bit behind.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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