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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.

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.

The English subjunctive may well be dying, but I am shedding no tears for it. This unconcern is, perhaps, a minority view amongst men of letters, for whom saying if I were instead of if I was is often a marker of a proper education, but I’m comforted by the fact that it is the majority view amongst users of English.

The subjunctive, if you’re not familiar with it, is a verbal mood* that appears in a variety of languages. It’s prominent in Romance languages (if you’ve taken French or Spanish, you’ve surely encountered it), and it exists to various extents in other Indo-European languages as well, including English. The basic idea of the subjunctive mood is that it expresses something counter to reality. For instance, one might say:

(1) If Alicia were the President, she’d get Party Down back on the air.

Normally, you’d say “Alicia was”; “Alicia were” would be a misconjugation. But because we’re talking about a counterfactual situation (Alicia is not really the president), we can use the subjunctive mood instead. And in the subjunctive mood, the present tense of the verb to be is were, regardless of the subject.

Often you’ll see people using the regular present tense in these situations, writing in (1) “if Alicia was the President”. That’s because the English subjunctive is pretty weak. It can be used in counterfactual situations, but it generally isn’t required. Because it’s optional and subtle (it looks just like the plural indicative forms of most verbs), it’s no surprise it’s disappearing.

Many grammarians wail and gnash teeth for this loss, and try to explain how important the subjunctive is.** Some explain that the subjunctive stresses the counterfactual nature of the situation, as though if you saw “if Alicia was president” in (1), you’d be thinking “I don’t know Alicia was president!”. Of course no one thinks this, because the counterfactuality is already established by the use of if.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that are some situations where the subjunctive is obligatory. And I say obligatory here meaning that I don’t get the right meaning out of the sentence if the subjunctive isn’t used. One occurred to me during a little monologue I was having in my head as I walked across campus the other day:

(2a) He’s obsessed with the idea that everybody admire him.
(2b) He’s obsessed with the idea that everybody admires him.

In (2a), with the subjunctive, our nameless character hopes that everybody admires him, suggesting a dearth of self-esteem. In (2b), with the indicative, our nameless character believes that everybody admires him, suggesting an overabundance of self-esteem.*** Here’s another one that just came to me, and here not using the subjunctive seems very awkward (although I’ve found examples of it in the corpus):

(3a) I require that it be done tomorrow
(3b) ?I require that it is done tomorrow

So, you might say, how can I idly declare the subjunctive on its way out while I also declare its necessity? Well, quite simply, if it disappears, we’ll do something else. In the case of (3b), it seems that this indicative form is gaining traction. As for (2a), by just changing the word idea to hope or desire, we get the same irrealis reading as (2a) without requiring the subjunctive. When language change happens, it doesn’t become impossible to say something. It just becomes impossible to say it the old way.

The worst case scenario is that the meanings of (2a) and (2b) get said the same way (with the indicative form admires), that they become a little bit ambiguous, and that we have to rely on context to tell them apart. Even that isn’t a bad situation, since we already do that with so many other things in language. The difference is critical in our current form of English, but it probably won’t be in future forms.

*: The subjunctive is properly called a mood, not a tense, because it exists across tenses; there are past, present, and future subjunctives. This Wikipedia article has some good info on this. The “standard” mood of English is known as the indicative, because it indicates what is really there.

**: I’m especially fond of the Academy of Contemporary English’s thoughts on the matter: “[Not using the subjunctive forms] is so common, in fact, that few people realise that they are using bad English when they mix them up. The difference is of the utmost importance […]”

NB: when only a few people notice a language distinction, it is not important, let alone of the utmost importance.

***: I won’t spoil the minor mystery by revealing which of the two I was actually thinking.

Let’s continue the S-Series by talking about beside and besides. I’ve heard a lot of people kick up a fuss over these two, but having thought through their usage, I’m rather surprised. I don’t think a lot of native English speakers really confuse the two forms anymore. The two used to be pretty interchangeable, like toward and towards, but beside generally ceded its non-literal meanings to besides sometime in the 19th century.

Unfortunately, it’s always difficult to get good statistics on the prevalence of different meanings of a word, so I’m basing what I say here what the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, and (to the least extent possible) my brain have to say on the matter. I’ve added corpus statistics where possible.

Next to: beside. The most literal meaning is also the primary meaning of beside in modern English. If you’re talking about physical positioning, you definitely want beside; the last attestation of physical-position besides in the OED is from 1440.

(1a) The purple couch beside the road
(1b) I am slightly concerned about the hungry tiger standing beside me.

Idiomatic nearness: beside the point. The “next to” meaning of beside is not limited to physical proximity; there are also idiomatic usages, the most prominent of which is beside the point. The alternative, besides the point, is rarely attested both historically and recently:

Adverb: besides. The OED reports that beside was once a standard adverb, but now it’s become obsolete in most of its adverbial usages and archaic in the rest. So use besides in sentences like:

(2a) Men? Sure, I’ve known lots of them. But I never found one I liked well enough to marry. Besides, I’ve always been busy with my work.
(2b) … lost her social position, job, and husband, and was broke besides. [MWDEU]

If you’re using it as sentence modifier, as in (2a), or as a clear adverb (i.e., without a noun following it (2b)), you probably want besides.

In addition to: besides. Now let’s return to prepositional usages. In modern English, the “in addition to” meaning almost always uses besides:

(3) There was no need to install additional software besides the game itself.

Beside used to be common in this usage, but it seems to have become rare in modern English (although I feel like it may be a common local variant in some places). I’ve found it only rarely in modern American writing, such as “Did Glenn mention anything beside the names I dropped?”, from COCA in 2002.

Other than: besides. A similar usage to the last one, again with besides as the primary modern form. Here I’m talking about using the word to mean something like “except”, as in:

(4a) Having been lost in the forest for days, I began to forget whether I’d ever eaten anything besides acorns.
(4b) Will Los Angeles ever be something besides a “suburban metropolis”?

Summary & caveat

So, in general, beside is used for literal and figurative nearness, and besides takes pretty much everything else (especially all other metaphorical usages).

That said, there is an important point here: each of the suggestions I’ve made above is still a bit fluid, since the distinct usages often didn’t start ossifying until the 19th century. Different usages and different people will vary on how much one form is preferred over the other. Adding an s in (1b) is straight out for me, but dropping the s in (3b) just sounds dialectal. And the further you go back in English, the more the usages will blend together.

Lastly, the promised caveat: it’s very hard to get clear data on the usage patterns of different senses of a word, so while I’m confident that these rules of thumb are accurate for my own idiolect, and fairly confident that they apply to standard American English, I’m not sure how well they reflect non-American Englishes. Use them at your peril.

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]

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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.

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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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