Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, our moot is on point…
Q: Hi AWC, I was at a dinner party the other night and someone mentioned that a topic was a “moot point”. Their usage seemed wrong. Can you shed light on this?
A: Sure can.
A: So this one is actually rather interesting. “Moot” has quite a backstory. It was once used widely as a noun – meaning an assembly of people exercising political, administrative, and judicial powers.
Q: So is that where “moot court” comes from?
A: Sure is. Anyway, these days, there is also the little-used verb form of “moot” to mean to bring forward for discussion. Someone may “moot” a suggestion in a meeting, for example.
Q: Which brings us to “moot point”?
A: It certainly does. This is the adjective form and most commonly used these days. Something will be declared “moot” or a “mootpoint”. And it’s here that things get interesting.
Q: Ooooh, do go on.
A: It’s probably worth addressing the elephant in the room first.
Q: No, talk directly to me.
A: Haha. We mean the erroneous ways that people say “mootpoint”. It is certainly wrong to say “mute point” – that’s something you do with your TV remote. And Joey from Friends was wrong about “moo point” too.
Q: Thank you for addressing the cow in the room.
A: And now for the interesting part.
Q: You mean that wasn’t it?
A: Nope. You see, “moot” leads a double life. The main definition here in Australia and Britain has “moot” meaning “open for debate”. The Macquarie Dictionary describes a moot proposition as one that is “subject to argument or discussion, debatable or doubtful”.
Q: So a moot point is “open for discussion” and very much alive. Hmmm, interesting. That’s not what my dinner party friend was meaning then.
A: Yes and that’s because they’ve latched onto the US variant – which emerged around 1900 in American law schools where students would discuss “moot” cases for practise. As a result, the primary meaning changed to become “purely academic or irrelevant” and “hypothetical and of no practical value”.
Q: Wow, that’s quite different. So in America “moot” means “not worth discussing” while the main meaning elsewhere is “open to discussion”.
A: That’s right. Kind of opposites really. And you’ll want to be careful that you know your audience when writing it. Of course, like many American variants, their version of “moot” (irrelevant, hypothetical) seems to have begun taking over – simply due to the dominance that American English has on the world.
Q: Makes me want to push the mute button.
A: Haha, yes, it’s a funny one and can be the cause of heated open discussion (a moot point!), although in America they’d see the discussion as a moot point.
Q: I see what you did there.
A: Just don’t ever use it to refer to cows…
Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!