Curtis Honeycutt | Grammar Guy: You're on mute

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It's difficult to remember how life was B.C. (before Covid). I have vague memories of slapping my hand against another person's hand in a celebratory manner when the local football team scored a touchdown. I can barely recall seeing someone I hadn't seen in a while — we would say "hello" to each other and briefly wrap our arms around each other's torsos. That seems like a million years ago, in a different version of Earth.

Now, everything is on Zoom. Zoom a meeting. Zoom your great-aunt Ruby's birthday party. Zoom your college roommate's wedding.

As strange as it is to live in a virtual version of our world, we're getting used to it — almost, that is. If I had a nickel for every time someone started talking during a Zoom call while his microphone was still on "mute," I'd have a few thousand nickels. I'm not sure if my pockets could handle that much change.

That brings me to today's word wondering: What's the difference between "mute" and "moot"? Many people say "mute point" when they mean to say "moot point." A "moot point" is an inconsequential or irrelevant point. To swap "moot" for "mute" certainly makes sense. I think the idea is, if you mute something, you can't hear it anymore. But, "moot" came first. So, what exactly is "moot"?

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"Moot" is something that is open for debate. It comes from the Old English word "gemot," which meant any legislative or judicial court where people would meet to discuss a matter. A moot point was something that hadn't yet been decided. It's where we get the word "meet" from.

How did something that meant "up for debate" become known as something trivial and irrelevant? Welcome to moot court.

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A moot court is where law students competitively hone their arguing skills. It involves a simulated appellate court case, where students focus on the application of the law to a standard set of evidentiary suppositions, facts and clarifications to which the competitors are introduced.

In other words, moot court is made up. The debates held at moot courts are purely academic. Other than a nerdy way for law students to get better at lawyering, the outcomes and arguments make absolutely no real-world difference. They're moot points.

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Moot can, therefore, either mean "debatable" or "irrelevant." In the U.S., it will almost always mean "irrelevant," while in England it's more likely to be used as a synonym for "debatable."

Here's a way to remember moot vs. mute: Since I have two feet, owning only one boot is pointless. Boot rhymes with moot. A butte is kind of like a mesa. Butte rhymes with mute. Buttes don't make any noise. One boot is moot. One butte is mute.

The next time someone makes a really good point on a Zoom call while he's on mute, he's making a mute moot point, because no one can hear it, which makes it irrelevant. So, before you make your convincing argument on Zoom, make sure you aren't on mute.

— Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of "Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life." Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.


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