Shhh! It doesn’t matter

A “moot” discussion

The silence is deafening. All over the Internet and printed publications, people are making “mute points”:

• A press release promises small businesses that “one of the benefits of online marketing is that your geography becomes a mute point.” (If no one can hear your business, can anyone find it?)

• A letter to the editor about a topless protest says: “It’s already legal for a woman to take off her shirt in North Carolina. The protest about equal rights is then a mute point.” (So the protests are very quiet ones?)

• A discussion about whether to merge two schools’ marching bands included a survey of the band members. “It’s all a mute point if the students are not on board,” one school’s superintendent said. (A marching band without music? What would Prof. Harold Hill say?)

The word wanted here, of course, is “moot” (rhymes with “toot”), not “mute” (pronounced “mewt”).

It’s easy to see why people confuse those words.

“To mute” means “to silence.” TV remotes and many phones have “mute” buttons to shut off the sound.

Most of the time, when people say “moot point,” they mean something akin to “it’s pointless to discuss this; it’s already decided.” In many people’s minds, the word-association may go something like this: It’s pointless to discuss this; it’s already decided. If it’s pointless to discuss it, we should just shut up about it. If we just shut up about it, we “mute” the discussion. So what we’re talking about is a “mute point.”

While that might make logical sense to some people, it’s still incorrect English.

After “moot point,” the most common use of “moot” is in “moot court,” where law students practice arguments. Since “moot point” means “pointless” or “not worth discussing,” and since the arguments the law students make are just for practice, therefore pointless, you might think that that’s why it’s called “moot court.”

Logical, but not exactly correct.

“Moot” is an old legal term. It originated in the twelfth century and meant either “A meeting, an assembly of people, esp. one for judicial or legislative purposes,” or the place the meeting was held, according to The Oxford English Dictionary. It evolved to mean an argument, then litigation.

In fact, in Britain, “moot” can still mean “arguable” or “debatable,” exactly the opposite of its American usage.

“Moot court” is so called because points are debated in them, not because the points debated are, well, pointless to debate.

Somewhere around 1900, though, the fact that the “moot court” cases were hypothetical, or not worth arguing, began to overtake the traditional meaning of “moot” as arguable, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage. Some held out for the traditional meaning; as recently as 1980, John Bremner wrote of “moot” in Words on Words: “It is mistakenly used to signify that something is beyond argument, that there is no point in arguing the question, except in the technical legal sense that something moot is something previously decided.”

But that argument is now “moot,” as dictionaries, usage authorities, and, most important, English users all accept the “pointless” definition.

“Mute” is not a legitimate mutation of “moot,” so let the point go “mute.” But spell it right.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , , ,