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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.

The terms descriptivism and prescriptivism get thrown around a lot, and it seems most everyone says one of the words with a sort of dripping scorn that wouldn’t be out of place on the word “Communist” in the Army-McCarthy hearings. For many people, the difference between the two is black and white: one is the right philosophy and the other the wrong one. One improves language and the other ruins it.

There are a precious few who are able to avoid this facile good-vs-evil characterization, but they are a minority. I think many of you readers fall into this category, although I can’t say I always live up to your example myself.

The problem’s only exacerbated by the fact that even those who haven’t genericized these terms don’t necessarily agree on their boundaries. For some descriptivists, anyone who corrects any error is a prescriptivist. For some prescriptivists, updating a dictionary is descriptivist madness.

Many prescriptivists seem to use the word descriptivist as a term of generic revulsion, as though its definition were little more than “someone who disagrees with me”. (Similar to the genericization of fascist in 60s-era political discourse, socialist in contemporary political discourse, or hipster in my own discourse.) And descriptivists do the same to prescriptivist. Again, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

So I felt like trying my hand at laying out what I think of as the division between descriptivists and prescriptivists, and why one can (and in fact ought to be) a little of both. Let me start off with a pithy summary of the debate between descriptivism and prescriptivism: is grammar something to be learned or something to be taught?

Descriptivism, in brief, is looking at what people say in a language and building up grammar rules from that. Prescriptivism, again in brief, is having a series of rules to tell you what should and should not be said. The difference in opinion between descriptivists and prescriptivists is often referred to as a “war”. I’m reluctant to say that’s overblown, because the gap between the two philosophies really exists and really is wide. But it’s based on a critical misconception: namely, that descriptivism and prescriptivism weigh in on the same matters.

They shouldn’t. A descriptivist philosophy is nothing more than saying that we need to be aware of the full range of allowable utterances in a language before we commit to its analysis. Descriptivism looks at what can possibly be said in a language. It’s at this level, for instance, that we can say that English is a Subject-Verb-Object word order language and not a Subject-Object-Verb language (like, say, Korean or Aymara), because virtually no one says I ball caught. This rule exists without explicit prescription.

A prescriptivist philosophy says that certain possible utterances are better than others. This sort of judgment may be based on aesthetics, clarity, prestige, or any other consideration. Here is where one can say that passive sentences should be avoided or that epic is gravely overused. But note that these rulings, unlike the descriptivist ones, do not determine validity of a sentence. Instead, these rulings tell what is a good usage, as opposed to a merely acceptable one. This is the critical difference between the -isms.

One can — and I believe must — be both a descriptivist and a prescriptivist in order to be a halfway decent language user. Descriptive knowledge lists your linguistic options, and prescriptive knowledge helps you decide between them. The trouble is that people have trouble keeping the two separate. Prescriptions mutate from “X is worse than Y” to “X is invalid” (see, for instance, Stan Carey’s posts on “not a word”). Some committed descriptivists overreach as well, arguing for a pure descriptivist viewpoint that treats all utterances as equally valid. (However, this seems a much rarer stance than overprescription.)

Why this is so difficult to get a handle on is unclear to me, and I say this as someone who’s only now starting to get a handle on it. It’s obvious in other fields, like architecture. An architect needs both to know what can be done (e.g., the maximum load a given beam can support) and what should be done (e.g., the aesthetics of a building). There are (I presume) no “prescriptivist” architects who would insist that an ugly but structurally sound building is “not a building” in the way that linguistic prescriptivists insist that ain’t isn’t a word.

Maybe the difference is that in architecture, structural soundness is fairly black-and-white, based on calculations and tables, and universal, subject to the same physical laws anywhere on Earth. In language, there are no easy references, and what’s valid in one language need not be in another. There is no rule that says ain’t must or mustn’t be a word, only the usage data that we ourselves, the speakers of English, have generated. I would think that would make it easier to see that language is flexible, yet many prescriptivists overlook the available usage information and insist that language should behave in a way that is largely independent of how language does behave. And many of them only stiffen their resolve when this is pointed out.

I’ve got one final thought, and that’s the contradiction that this site’s motto is “Prescriptivism Must Die!” and yet here I am saying that prescriptivism is important. What I think should die is captial-P Prescriptivism, the reliance on prescriptions and proscriptions everywhere, the barring of perfectly standard English or dialectal English because of misunderstandings, historical accidents, and other foolishly-constructed rules. It’s prescriptivism without descriptivism that must die, I suppose, but that’s more nuance than a motto can reasonably bear.

[I realized late in writing this post just how much it was inspired by Jonathon Owen’s post Continua, Planes, and False Dichotomies from October. If you haven’t read it, or forgot the details since the last time you read it, I strongly suggest you do, as it is in many ways a better version of this post.]

I’m a little surprised that I’ve been blogging for almost five years now and never got around to talking about whether there’s a difference between the words disinterested and uninterested. I suppose I’ve avoided it because the matter has already been excellently discussed by many others, and I didn’t think I needed to add my voice to that choir. But now it’s become something of a glaring omission in my mind, so it’s time to fix that.

Let’s skip to the end and fill in the middle later: there is a difference, but in Mark Liberman’s words, it’s “emergent and incomplete, rather than traditional and under siege”. For some people, there’s a clean separation, for others an overlap. In the language in general, uninterested is limited to the “unconcerned” meaning, while disinterested can mean either “unconcerned” or “unbiased”.

How do two distinct meanings arise from such similar words? The problem lies at the root — namely, interest, which can be with (1a) or without (1b) bias:

(1a) I espouse a relatively dull orthodox Christianity and my interest in Buddhism is strictly cultural, aesthetic.
(1b) Upon consignment of your car, it’s in my interest to do everything possible to present your car to potential buyers.

So, when one adds a negative prefix to interest(ed), is it merely disavowing concern, or bias as well? I don’t know of any inherent difference between dis- and un- that would solve that question, and historically, no one else seemed to either. Though I don’t have relative usage statistics, the Oxford English Dictionary cites both forms with both meanings early in their history:

(2a) How dis-interested are they of all Worldly matters, since they fling their Wealth and Riches into the Sea. [c1677-1684]
(2b) The soul‥sits now as the most disinterested Arbiter, and impartial judge of her own works, that she can be. [1659]

(2c) He is no cold, uninterested, and uninteresting advocate for the cause he espouses. [1722]
(2d) What think you of uninterested Men, who value the Publick Good beyond their own private Interest? [1709]

But we both know that it’s no longer the 18th century, and I strongly suspect that you find (2d) to be a bit odd. The OED agrees, and marks this meaning (uninterested as “unbiased”) as obsolete. I looked over the first 50 examples of uninterested in COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) as well and found no examples like (2d). If it still exists, it’s rare or dialectal. Uninterested meaning “unconcerned” (2c) is, of course, alive and well.

So really, it’s not a question of whether people are confusing uninterested and disinterested, but rather a question of whether disinterested has two possible meanings. We’re certainly told that they are, and that it is imperative that disinterested be kept separate. For instance:

The constant misuse of disinterested for uninterested is breaking down a very useful distinction of meaning.”

Is it really? Suppose disinterested could just as easily take either meaning, and that this somehow rendered it unusable.* You’d still be able to use unbiased, impartial, objective, or unprejudiced for the one meaning, and indifferent, unconcerned, and uninterested for the other. We’re not losing this distinction at all.

Setting aside such misguided passion, let’s look at how disinterested actually is (and has been) used. As we saw in (2a) & (2b), disinterested started out being used for both meanings. This persisted, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), through the 19th century without complaint. Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary disinterestedly lists both senses, and it’s not until 1889 that MWDEU finds the first complaint. Opposition to disinterested for “unconcerned” appears to have steadily grown since then, especially in America.

But despite all the grousing, “unbiased” disinterested is hardly in dire straits. MWDEU’s searches found that 70% of all uses of disinterested in their files between 1934 and the 1980s were of this sense, and that this percentage actually increased during the 1980s. Furthermore, the MWDEU notes that the use of disinterested for “unconcerned” usually has a subtle difference from uninterested. Disinterested is often used to indicate that someone has lost interest as opposed to having been uninterested from the start.** This fits with other un-/dis- pairs, such as unarmed/disarmed.

Summary: Far from losing an existing distinction, it seems that we’re witnessing a distinction emerging. Uninterested is now restricted to an “unconcerned” meaning. Disinterested covers impartiality, but it also can take the “uninterested” meaning, often indicating specifically that interest has been lost. Because many people object to this sense of disinterested, you may want to avoid it if you’re uninterested in a fight. Will the distinction ever fully emerge, and the overlap be lost? Would that this desk were a time desk…

*: I think it goes without saying that having multiple meanings does not make a word unusable. In case it doesn’t, consider the much more confusing words fly, lead, and read.

**: Compare, for instance, I grew disinterested to I grew uninterested. I definitely prefer the former.

**: MWDEU notes that while the distributions of the two senses overlap, it’s more clear than people let on; “unbiased” disinterested tends to modify an abstract noun like love, whereas “unconcerned” disinterested tends to modify humans, and appear with in in tow.

Compose and comprise seem like mischievous brothers who are opposites but masquerade as each other to fool their friends. They’re very similar — both handle parts-to-whole relationships — yet they’re mirror images in how they handle it.

The standard division is this. Compose has the parts as the subject and the whole as the object. Comprise makes the whole the subject and the parts the object. So we get:

(1) […] Pickwick was able to cultivate a sound that was more organic and unique to the six members that compose the band.

(2) The band comprises singer/guitarist Erlend Øye of Kings of Convenience, bassist Marcin Öz, drummer Sebastian Maschat, and Daniel Nentwig […]

But is this a real distinction? I was tempted to say that it must be, because it seems like everyone knows about it. But then again, a lot of people have trouble maintaining this distinction, and I regularly see comprise used in sentences like (1). And, if I’m being perfectly honest, sentences like (2) sound rather odd to me, even after I’ve assured myself that they are appropriate. So is there a true distinction that people happen to be bad at maintaining, or is the distinction just another spurious one to add to the heap?

Well, the distinction clearly exists in one direction; while many people could use comprise in sentence 1, very few would use compose in sentence 2. As a result, we’re running into a similar situation as with jealousy/envy or verbal/oral. It’s not a matter of whether the two words are synonymous, but rather a question of whether one is more general than the other.* As usual, here’s the table of known possibilities:

whole-to-parts parts-to-whole
comprise YES (2) ? (1a)
compose NO YES (1)

Can comprise take parts as its subject and the whole as its object? Well, it’s easy to find people who say no, both on the Internet and in usage guides.

But I find it interesting that even committed prescriptivist writers, who completely believe in this rule, have trouble remembering it. Here’s a quote from William Safire:

I wrote […] ‘They comprise a terror coalition’ […] Greg Walker of the International Association of Chiefs of Police blew the whistle on this one, suggesting that I should have written constitute, meaning ‘make up.’ He’s right.”

And likewise, from James J. Kilpatrick:

The rule here is that the whole comprises the parts, and the parts compose the whole. […] My problem is that I cannot seem to remember this.”

So, many grammarians want there to be a distinction, but even they have a hard time maintaining it. Does it exist in the language-at-large? It doesn’t seem to, judging from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

527 singular-subject comprises
468 plural-subject comprise

In current usage, comprise is appearing in senses (1) and (2) almost equally.** How about historical usage?Well, interestingly, the earliest complaint about the misuse of comprise found by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage wasn’t until 1903. But comprise was being used both ways well before that. The OED has examples from 1794 and 1799 on through to the present day. MWDEU notes that this usage was labelled “rare” in earlier editions, but this label has since been removed. So for at least two centuries, comprise has had a parts-to-whole usage that has only been gaining in popularity.

But why would comprise allow the two different usages? Well, why wouldn’t it? There’s very rarely a situation where it’s unclear which is the whole and which are the parts. And there’re parts-to-whole situations where compose doesn’t quite sound right to me, but comprise does. For instance, this MWDEU example from 1916:

“[…] the ringlets and bracelets did not comprise the whole of this young man’s soul.”

"So fellas, is it fair to say that we comprise an awesome band?"

All that said, there’s no denying that many people have a strong conviction that compose and comprise are mirror images. Although one can justify the use of parts-to-whole comprise, it’s an uphill battle. I wouldn’t recommend using it unless you’re spoiling for a fight. But if you are, you’ve got a pretty solid argument up your sleeve. The final table, with the grey indicating this “yes, but…” situation:

whole-to-parts parts-to-whole
comprise YES (2) YES
compose NO YES (1)

[For more on these words, check out Arrant Pedantry and Language Log‘s takes, which talk more about the passive forms than I did.]

*: I’ve taken to calling these “asymmetric pairs”, but I’m sure there must be a better name out there.

**: If you’re interested in the details, I searched the part-of-speech labelled COCA for singular or plural nouns ([*nn1*], [*nn2*]) followed by comprises or comprise, respectively, and summed over all different nouns. For a baseline (in case singular or plural subjects were generally more common), I also searched for compose. The results were very noisy due to overlap with other senses (e.g., “he composed himself before speaking”, “she composed a symphony”), but there were 40 singulars to 84 plurals in that search.

It’s worth noting that the (perhaps surprisingly common) presence of plural subjects for comprise in COCA is not driven by spoken examples. Only 19 of the hits come from spoken data; magazines and academic writing supply the bulk of the examples for both kinds of subjects. It’s appearing in edited writing, not only in unedited speech.

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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 an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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