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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.

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It’s nearly Xmas, so I’m feeling like posting something imperceptibly more trivial than usual. In a sometimes effective attempt to block out the Christmas songs being hummed everywhere I go (most of all by my parents, who want to stop but can’t), I’ve been going through some of my old favorite songs.

One of these is “Me and Mia” by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and every time I listen to it, I’m struck by the way Leo pronounces the word forgotten in the line “call your friends ’cause we’ve forgotten / what it’s like to eat what’s rotten”. Here’s the album version of the line [at the 0:42 & 1:30 marks]

I love the way he says it, like he’s swallowing the end of the word and just barely spitting back out. And he seems to be fairly consistent in how he pronounces forgotten in this song: here’s a live version with the same pronunciation (around the 1:25 mark). Since I’ve found it such a striking pronunciation and since I’m a linguist, I figured that I could figure out what makes it distinctive.

Let’s start off by talking about the canonical American English pronunciation of forgotten, which is probably going to be something like [fɚgɑtən]. If you, like me, aren’t at home with the International Phonetic Alphabet, the basic gist is as follows. The first syllable is an f sound followed by an er sound (ɚ). That weird symbol is a rhotic schwa; the er sound is not actually two distinct sounds, but rather a single vowel whose third formant is lowered, which we perceive as a combination of a vowel and an r. This syllable doesn’t really impact the end of the word, so let’s move on.

The second syllable sets up Leo’s distinctive pronunciation of the third. The two phonemes in this syllable, [g] and [ɑ], are both located in the back of one’s mouth. For [g], you push the back of your tongue up against your soft palate, back behind your teeth. Then, to make [ɑ], you pretty much push your tongue as far down and back in your mouth as you do for any English sound. If you try overexaggeratedly saying “got”, you’ll hopefully feel what I’m talking about here. If you don’t, just trust me that your tongue is further back in your mouth than normal as you finish up this syllable.

If it helps, here's a vowel chart for California English. The vowels' positions are loosely correlated with the where your tongue in your mouth. The left is the front of your mouth, the top the roof of your mouth. Notice ɑ is in the bottom right.

And now the third syllable. Let’s start with the canonical form of it, [tən]. After jamming your tongue way back in your mouth last syllable, now you push your tongue up against the back of your teeth to make a [t], relax it a bit to make a lax vowel of some sort (possibly a schwa, but this will vary), and then push your tongue up against your teeth again to make an [n]. Or, at least, that’s what you would do if you were overenunciating.

In real-life American English, you’re going to replace that [t] with what phoneticians call a “flap” (ɾ), a quick tap of your tongue against your gumline that’s sort of a midpoint between t, d, and r.* In addition, you might not make a separate vowel+n pair, but instead, you’ll do a syllabic n, taking advantage of the ability to sustain a nasal stop like n. And that gets you what I’m going to call the “relaxed” pronunciation of forgotten.

With that as a base form, what’s Leo doing? Well, at the end of the second syllable, his tongue is way in the back of his mouth. Instead of moving his tongue all the way forward to make the t or flap sound, he uses another allophonic variant, the glottal stop. If you’re not familiar with the term, think of either a Cockney pronunciation of bottle, or the word uh-oh. There’s a weird gap in the middle of these words; the two syllables are clearly connected by something, but it’s more of a silence than a sound. If anything, it might sound like a weird gasp. That is the glottal stop, where one’s vocal folds close up and then release a brief burst of air as a little creaky pop.

The glottal stop doesn’t require the tongue to move from its back-of-the-mouth position, so when it comes time to make the [n], Leo’s tongue is further back than if he’d made a proper t or flap. When he goes to make the n sound, he doesn’t move his tongue all the way forward, creating a “retracted” n that’s located further back in his mouth than a normal n.

That’s a lot of words about something that might seem rather uninteresting — I started by saying “oh, it’s neat how Ted Leo sort of swallows the end of his word” and concluded by saying “oh, the reason why it sounds like he’s swallowing the syllable is because the syllable is further back in his mouth”. But there’re two things I found interesting in that analysis. One is that it’s kind of neat that we do have this phonetic intuition telling us that sounds produced further back than usual sound like they’re being swallowed, even if we don’t consciously notice where our tongues are when we’re making such noises. The second is that it’s a good illustration of how sounds are affected by the phonetic environment; if it weren’t forgotten, but rather the made-up word fortetten, swallowing that last syllable wouldn’t have been natural.


*: Wikipedia has a concise but somewhat confusing overview of the way flaps work in different forms of English, if you’re interested.

I went to buy something the other day using a credit card, but I screwed up somehow and the machine ended up cancelling the transaction. It announced this to me in a message that persisted on the screen for an interminable twenty seconds as “The transaction has been canceled.” For those twenty seconds, all I could think about — aside from my lingering fear that perhaps my card had been disabled and now I was never going to be able to get whatever doubtlessly important object I was trying to buy — was that that message just didn’t look right to me.

I’ve always written the past tense of cancel with two L’s. It’s cancelled to me, cancelling as well. Because I’m not as familiar with the canceled spelling, it occasionally triggers a strange “can-sealed” pronunciation in my head. This is presumably because my brain follows one of those standard heuristics of English pronunciation, that a single vowel followed by a single consonant and an e means to make the first vowel long and silence the e. That’s what we have in such words as rile, smote, or gale. And it’s especially prominent to me since it’s in my first name (Gabe).

This pronunciation heuristic is generally followed in tense changes as well; the verb pan becomes panned in its past tense, with two n‘s, to maintain the short a sound. Without the double n, it’d be paned, which I’d pronounce, well, like paned (as in double-paned glass).

And yet I’ve noticed more and more over the years that my countrymen disagree with me. In error messages I see a single l, leaving me even more depressed about the error. The AP Stylebook disagrees with me too. But why? What caused Americans to move away from the general English spelling heuristic?

"Cancelled" written on a chalkboard

Ah, much better.

I didn’t know, but if there’s anyone who could shed light on this, it’s Ben Zimmer. He puts it at the foot of Noah Webster, the American Samuel Johnson. Webster compiled the first dictionary of American English, and consciously sought to distance American English from British English, which he saw as corrupted by the aristocracy. Because Webster was codifying American English as a dialect separate from the standards of British English, this gave him the ability to make the changes he saw as appropriate to the American forms.

One of the major changes he wanted made was spelling reform, and so in Webster’s first dictionary (1828, available in searchable form here), we see the beginning of many Anglo-American debates: colour appeared as color, centre was switched to center, and our target cancel was listed with past tense canceled, present progressive canceling, and noun form cancelation.* His idea here was to push for easier or more natural or more accurate (relative to pronunciation) spellings. The u doesn’t get pronounced in colour? Gone. Centre isn’t pronounced cent-ruh? Switch it. Cancelled doesn’t have a double-l sound? Smash ’em together.

Some of Webster’s revisions took over pretty quickly. A quick glance at Google N-grams shows color surging in AmEng in the 1830s, and surpassing colour by 1850. Center took longer, but still surpassed centre by the turn of the century.

But others, like canceled, stayed on the sidelines. Oh, canceled grew in popularity, but it wasn’t until the middle of last century that the two forms evened out, and it wasn’t until the ’80s that canceled finally asserted itself as the more common form.** Personally, I think that sluggishness is because this spelling change doesn’t make as much sense as the others. The second l may be silent, but it tells you not to change the stem vowel’s pronunciation, and thus it has something of a purpose.

Google N-Grams chart of the slow rise of "canceled"

What’s interesting about all of this to me is that Webster was primarily a descriptivist, compiling a dictionary wherein he was looking to accurately capture the American form of English. But he prescribed a new spelling for a large set of words, and now his changes, which for years were held in lower esteem, are becoming the thing that prescriptivists demand adherence to.

Unfortunately, in his attempt to simplify matters, Webster introduced new confusion. I don’t see how it’s easier to remember not to put in an extra l when all the similar words double their last letter. And worse, Webster’s changes didn’t fully take. Sure, canceled and canceling are doing fine, but cancelation never caught on. Thus the AP Stylebook (and many other usage guides) have the inflections of cancel as canceled, canceling, cancellation, which is needlessly complicated in my mind.

And so that’s the deal. In American English, single-l canceled is the common form, almost thrice as common as cancelled according to Google N-grams. There will probably be a day where the double-l form will look as old and affected as centre in American English, but that point isn’t here yet. Use whichever form you like more. Me? I like the across the board double-l forms. (Of course I do; I was born just before canceled surpassed cancelled.)


*: Webster also included the fun adjectival form cancelated, which I hope to incorporate into my speech in the future.

**: I hope the non-Americans in the audience will forgive my focus on American English. None of these Websterian changes have surpassed the original form in the British English portion of Google N-grams, and I don’t have enough personal experience in non-American Englishes to say anything more than these numbers do.

I was scanning through Paul Yeager’s book, Literally, the Best Language Book Ever, and, as with most all books of peeves, I found myself at times slightly at odds with the author. It wasn’t that I thought his preferred usages were wrong, or even that they weren’t my preferred usage (they often were), but that I felt like he never bothered to explain what was wrong with his dispreferred usage.

And then I read one claim that made me understand his linguistic philosophy, revealing that the incompleteness of his arguments was intentional, and indicative of a deeper misunderstanding of language. The claim was in a discussion of how one should make the past tense of forecast, and in arguing that only forecast (not forecasted) is correct, he reveals a crucial (and misguided) assumption in his argument:

Language doesn’t work like the local supermarket; there are no buy-one-get-one-free deals: one word, one past tense.

I immediately thought of an exchange from Arrested Development, when Lindsay Bluth, rich philanthropist, tries to convince Johnny Bark, a nature activist, to stop protecting a tree from her family’s bulldozers:

Lindsay: Look, I’m an activist, too, and I appreciate what you’re doing for the environment. But we’re not the only ones who destroy trees. What about beavers? You call yourself an environmentalist. Why don’t you go out and club some beavers?
Johnny Bark: You don’t really get nature, do you?

This is the problem with many peeveologists; they don’t really get language. In Yeager’s case, he adheres to the axiom of One Right Way: there is a single correct form of each word, a single correct way of saying any given thing. Once you determine that one usage is right, all the others must be wrong by extension. But any linguist can explain to you that is one wrong way of looking at language. Just to hammer home the point, let me offer some examples of Multiple Right Ways:

Pronunciation. People will pronounce some words differently depending on context. For instance, I vary my pronunciation of either and neither and route and homage and caramel, because sometimes one way sounds better than the other in a given situation. Most people, I would wager, have a set of words with similarly variable pronunciation. I’ll bet you do.

Numbers. This is really a subpoint under pronunciation, but how do you say 1387? “One thousand three hundred and eighty-seven”, “thirteen hundred and eighty-seven”, “thirteen eighty-seven”, and “one three eight seven” are all standard in some contexts.

Word choice. There are tons of these. One example: kid and child are two words for the same thing, differing primarily in tone. Or damp and moist, or bother, annoy, and irritate.

Morphology. When I was a math major, I had to write a lot of either formulas or formulae, and my choice of plural varied with the context. People and persons are each acceptable in different contexts as well. Looking specifically at past tenses, I wrote a few months ago about variation in the past tense of shine, and similar variation appears in dreamed/dreamt, dived/dove, and lighted/lit, among others.

Syntactic structure. Syntactic alternations give you multiple ways to say the same thing. The dative alternation lets one say either I gave him the gift or I gave the gift to him; the genitive alternation offers the friend of the president and the president’s friend; the needs doing alternation yields the house needs to be cleaned and the house needs cleaning. Because in some cases one sounds better than the other (e.g., I gave John the gift he always wanted vs. I gave the gift John always wanted to him), this sort of alternation is really useful.

It’s essential to note that in these alternations, the alternate forms are not identical in meaning or use. The point is instead that in many situations, one form is no more right than the other(s). In other situations, one form might be more right than another, but the other(s) still might not be wrong.

Sure, there’s something to be said for consistency, for using specific words in consistently prescribed ways. And sometimes you can do that, but not always. The trouble is that the world rarely submits to sharp definitions. The world rarely has one right way to do something, and so neither does language. That’s a fact that every language commentator needs to understand. Unfortunately, few of them do.

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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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