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I was recently called out for using the phrase "the point is moot" incorrectly. My intent was to indicate that I felt that the point wasn't really worth debating or discussing. I was then shown that the definition also includes "open to discussion" which left me scratching my head. While the two definitions are not strictly opposing, they do seem to go off in rather distinct yet related directions.

I am left feeling like this discussion is perhaps moot — is it best to just avoid using the word entirely? Is there a proper or accepted way to use it correctly?

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How can someone say you are using an expression incorrectly because there is a second legitimate interpretation? Or were two other parties involved? –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 2 '13 at 19:27
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Moot is that rare example of an auto-antonym, though it is perhaps not the most pristine example of one. Wiktionary can probably explain it better than I can. –  waiwai933 Jan 3 '13 at 7:30
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It's like a cow's opinion. It doesn't matter. It's moo. youtube.com/watch?v=fLwYpSCrlHU –  nohat Dec 10 '13 at 8:28

11 Answers 11

up vote 12 down vote accepted

A "moot" point is debatable and open for discussion but may not come to any satisfactory conclusion or whose conclusion may be meaningless.

Some examples from Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

  • The court ruled that the issue is now moot because the people involved in the dispute have died.
  • I think they were wrong, but the point is moot. Their decision has been made and it can't be changed now.
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The Oxford English Dictionary defines the North American use of moot as ‘Of a case, issue, etc.: having no practical significance or relevance; abstract, academic.’

Not being a speaker of American English, I can comment no further.

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That is definition #2 for the adjective "moot" in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Definitions 1a and 1b are: 1a: open to question : debatable, 1b: subjected to discussion : disputed –  Kristina Lopez Jan 2 '13 at 18:46
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The OED's first definition includes the words open to argument, debatable; uncertain, doubtful; unable to be firmly resolved. But I thought it more relevant to answer with the specifically North American usage. –  Barrie England Jan 2 '13 at 18:53
    
Barrie, I hope you don't mind a quibble about the phrase “Not being a speaker of American English”. I think “Not being an American speaker of English” is more accurate, as it is almost impossible for BE speakers to avoid occasional AE, and vice versa. –  jwpat7 Jan 2 '13 at 19:00
    
@jwpat7. American English, British English, Indian English, Caribbean English, Singapore English, Australian English are all varieties of the language. Mine is British English, not any of the others. –  Barrie England Jan 2 '13 at 19:07
    
So the OP is not restricted to the NA varieties.what is the BrE definition then? –  Mitch Jan 2 '13 at 20:19

I have always been mystified at the unqualified "open to discussion or debate" meaning of moot, and consider it to be an error (at least if used within the confines of American English). I've never seen it used that way, without the accompanying notion that though the question itself is unresolved, it is not useful to debate in the current context because of lack of relevance. If someone declared that a point was moot, then followed up with "... so let's debate it right now!", I would either seek help for the individual or avoid further contact.

And that's the way it is used in U.S. jurisprudence, at least-- cases are often dismissed for mootness, and a moot point may be defined as an "issue presenting no real controversy", "a subject for academic argument", or "an abstract question that does not arise from existing facts or rights" (example definitions pulled from The Free Online Dictionary). There is accordingly a fairly rich body of case law supporting the legal doctrine of mootness, and outlining its limits and exceptions. Practically speaking, the issue of mootness is not whether the issue is truly just abstract or academic, it's whether the court thinks it can finagle its way out of addressing it in the context of the facts of a specific case. For example, even though a case is initially considered moot, it may be addressed by a court if it is capable of repetition, yet evading review, i.e. though in the case being considered the issue no longer exists (usually because the real-world situation has resolved by the time the case is reviewed), that will keep happening if the court doesn't agree to resolve the legal issue.

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How do you feel about the sentence "He mooted the point that...", as an alternative version of "He raised the question...". That's the construction I'm familiar with where the word is used in the unqualified "open to discussion or debate" meaning. –  Racheet Dec 10 '13 at 10:56
    
@Racheet: eek...I interpret that as meaning almost the complete opposite. My initial impression was more along the lines of, "He ended the debate on grounds of irrelevancy." –  zourtney Feb 16 at 3:34
    
@zourtney I think it's a confusing but not uncommon usage. In my understanding to "moot a point" is to raise it for question, perhaps by analogy to opening a moot court, however, to "make a point moot" is to render it irrelevant. –  Racheet Feb 24 at 11:33

The term "moot" is used in several related ways. It can mean an argument that no longer has any practical consequence. It can mean an argument that can be endlessly debated with no way to reach a clear conclusion. It can mean an argument that is about something completely meaningless and thus only argued for the sake of having an argument.

Some people will insist that any meaning other than 'no longer important' is "incorrect". They're the same people who argue that it's wrong to use "hopefully" as a sentence adverb or that one shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition. If for some reason you cannot ignore them, then only use "moot" in the legal sense -- an issue whose resolution no longer matters due to changes in circumstances.

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As a speaker of American English, I have always understood "moot point" as something irrelevant, not worth arguing over

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The American meaning, which is "we can debate this but whatever conclusion we reach is immaterial" has, even in England, largely superseded the original English meaning which was "we need to debate this". A moot was a meeting to talk over issues - hence the original meaning of a moot point - from thefreedictionary.com: "2. An ancient English meeting, especially a representative meeting of the freemen of a shire."

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"The adjective moot is originally a legal term going back to the mid-16th century. It derives from the noun moot, in its sense of a hypothetical case argued as an exercise by law students. Consequently, a moot question is one that is arguable or open to debate.

But in the mid-19th century people also began to look at the hypothetical side of moot as its essential meaning, and they started to use the word to mean "of no significance or relevance." Thus, a moot point, however debatable, is one that has no practical value. A number of critics have objected to this use, but 59 percent of the Usage Panel accepts it in the sentence The nominee himself chastised the White House for failing to do more to support him, but his concerns became moot when a number of Republicans announced that they, too, would oppose the nomination.

When using moot one should be sure that the context makes clear which sense is meant." (AHD)

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I added the missing link. I'm not sure it's really acceptable to simply block-quote the whole section as an answer. If that's all there is to it, the implication is the question itself is just General Reference anyway. –  FumbleFingers Oct 27 '13 at 1:06
    
@FumbleFingers I did want to write it as a comment, but it was too long. I realize now that it might not be acceptable, but I was too lazy to search for the link (I used my notes; the same question bothered me too a while ago). If you think I should remove this "answer," I'll happily oblige. Although, now that we've dealt with the problem, I suspect no new users will be so thoughtless as to copy my behavior. –  Talia Ford Oct 27 '13 at 1:18
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I was going to refrain from saying the point is moot, but I suppose it's a bit late to bring that up now! :) Personally I think the question as posed is indeed GR for ELU. It started off meaning capable of being debated, with a view to future action, but almost all modern usages have drifted to only capable of being at most debated, with no prospect of this affecting future action. This can be established from any half-way reasonable dictionary, which is why I've closevoted. –  FumbleFingers Oct 27 '13 at 1:29

I agree with Paul Robinson - In general American (Colloquial) English usage, a "moot point" is one that is, contrary to the original definition, "no longer open to debate;" is irrelevant; is an argument that no longer has any practical consequence.

The point is moot. It's closed; it's over; it's no longer significant. The point no longer holds any value.

An item of note is that a large number of people incorrectly say, "The point is mute;" which is not a valid sentence at all. That sentence would imply that the point is 'silent;' when, in actuality, the person intended to say, "The point is moot" (hence: meaningless).

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This is a peculiar answer. You declare a colloquial usage to be correct, only to go on and declare another colloquial usage to be incorrect. That is quite random. In both cases a word is used "contrary to the original definition", but only one gets your approval. You will have to elaborate why that would be, otherwise the only rule at work here is "whatever suits my personal taste". (Which is a perfectly fine rule to have for yourself, it's just that other people have different tastes and thus different rules.) –  RegDwigнt Nov 25 '13 at 21:36

A "moot point" or saying a point is moot, as a phrase, is frequently misinterpretted. It is frequently used to mean a point is irrelevant, not up for debate, not worth debating, or the speaker simply doesn't want to argue anymore, all of which are incorrect.

The ancestral meaning, regarding moot court, may still be in use in some places, but I will focus on the other definition.

Definition: moot point (plural moot points)

  • An issue that is subject to, or open for discussion or debate; originally, one to be definitively determined by an assembly of the people.

  • An issue regarded as potentially debatable, but no longer practically applicable. Although the idea may still be worth debating and exploring academically, and such discussion may be useful for addressing similar issues in the future, the idea has been rendered irrelevant for the present issue.

Until we rebuild downtown, whether we build more parking spaces is a moot point.

Now, where people tend to go wrong is in the bastardization of the second definition. In your case, you removed the most vital portion of the definition, the central portion of the definition -- that the point is debatable. Every definition of the word focuses on that primary point, and many people forget that. It is the origin of the word, and it has never lost that meaning.

The point I would like to make is this -- to be a moot point in this second definition, the point must be both debatable and no longer applicable or relevant to the current case. This includes the definition in the US legal sense as well. It isn't that a subject isn't worth discussing, rather that it no longer has a practical application in the current circumstances.

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To say something is debatable means that is is not worth debating it. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin is certainly debatable, but I don't think it's worth my time to debate that number.

In other words, some of the answers given here point out that the definition of moot includes something that is debatable or open for question - which to me implies that it is not worth debating - which to me means it is moot. As a linguist I have to wonder if there are dialectal differences in this area. For me, moot, open for debate, debatable, all imply something similar, and others indicate their understanding of questionable, debatable, the opposite of the way I think they mean.

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I'm not quite sure how this addresses the question. If something is debatable then depending on our purposes it is either best excluded or best debated. To merely declare all debatable things worthless (while uttering a debatable opinion) is fraught with irony. –  virmaior Feb 25 at 19:11

In my experience, North Americans and English use "moot point" in two opposite and contradictory ways, to my great confusion when I first encountered it. I disagree with the assertion that the American usage is now common in England; here a moot point is still very much open for discussion.

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