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LinguaPhile, September 2002

A monthly e-mail newsletter nurturing the development and enjoyment of English language arts at home and at school.


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Follow-Up: moot

Last month's discussion of moot prompted some interesting and enlightening responses:

This one question brings up several things that people ought to know about their dictionaries. First of all, no mention is made of which Webster's dictionary this is: Is it Merriam-Webster? If so, which edition? Is it Webster's New World? Is it another Webster altogether -- "Webster" is not a trademark, and any publisher can use it for their dictionary.

These definitions seem to be from an older edition of Merriam- Webster's Dictionary (the current edition is the 10th). This is a dictionary arranged with the oldest meanings first, so more common and more modern usages are often further down in the entry. You need to read the front matter of your dictionary before using it, just as you would read the instructions for a power tool.

The New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) has a definition which I feel clears up the confusion: "subject to debate, dispute, or uncertainty, and typically not admitting of a final decision: whether the temperature rise was mainly due to the greenhouse effect was a moot point." So a moot point can be argued, but why? It cannot be decided.

Bryan Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998) has this to say about moot:
" ... a moot point was classically seen as one that is arguable. A moot case was a hypothetical case proposed for discussion in a 'moot' of law students (i.e. the word was once a noun). In U.S. law schools, students practice arguing hypothetical cases before appellate courts in moot court.
"From that sense of moot derived the extended sense 'of no practical importance; hypothetical; academic.' This shift in meaning occurred about 1900: 'because the question has already become moot.'
"... To use moot in the sense 'open to argument' in modern American English is to create an ambiguity and to confuse readers."

We can learn several things from this question, besides the answer: one, know your dictionary. Two, use current, recently published reference books, and three, do exactly what this reader did -- when in doubt, look it up, and when really in doubt, ask!

Erin McKean
Senior Editor, U.S. Dictionaries
Editor, Verbatim: The Language Quarterly
Oxford University Press


There are in English a number of words called "contranyms," words that have taken on new meanings that are almost the opposite of their traditional ones. Moot is such a word. The OED lists only one sense for moot: "...can be argued, debatable, not decided, doubtful." The OED dates the word to 1572.

Around 1900 moot began to take on another sense: "of no practical importance, hypothetical, academic." Some authorities, e.g., Bernstein, reject the "new" meaning even though it seems well established. My guess is that the first sense is about to disappear. Although we still hear moot used in the traditional sense, the new sense is prevalent, and I would venture a guess that the traditional sense is about to fade away.

The way I have heard moot used most often is in a sentence such as "That's a moot point," meaning it's not relevant. A traditionalist would say, "The point is not moot," meaning about the same thing. Thus, the opposing meanings.

My law dictionary gives the first definition, but it defines "moot question" as "an academic question," something that cannot be answered by "referring to established rights and facts."

Richard Dowis
President of SPELL (Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature)
Dowis is author or coauthor of six books, including The Lost Art of the Great Speech, published by AMACOM Books. It is a how-to book for speakers and speechwriters.

Editor's Note: Examining the history of moot certainly helped to explain its opposite meanings: Law students debated "moot points," but since their cases were only hypothetical, they were of no consequence. I am grateful to Erin and Richard for their valuable information.

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Quote of the Month: Reading

I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little further down our particular path than we have gone ourselves.
--E. M. Forster, English novelist, 1879-1970

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Expand Your Vocabulary: opsimathy

With the growing number of senior citizens and the increase in continuing education classes available to them, we should anticipate a surge of opsimathy in our society.

Opsimathy (/op SIM uh thee/) means "learning late in life." A person who begins learning late in life is an opsimath (/OP si math/). The words are rooted in the Greek opsi, meaning "late," and math, meaning "learning."

While life-long learning is desirable, procrastinating schoolchildren should not set opsimathy as their goal.

Reviewers of Hands-On English have said that the vocabulary section alone is worth the book's modest purchase price. Learn more -- and place your order -- at

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Q and A: Literature Circle Books on U.S. History

Question: Do you have any suggestions for literature circle books on U.S. history for grades 3 through 7?

Answer: Literature is a wonderful enhancement to the study of history. Eras can come to life -- even in historical fiction -- in ways that they cannot when the emphasis is on isolated facts.

Each of us probably has personal favorites that depict certain periods. Sounder by William Armstrong is one of mine (grade 5 and up). Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes vividly describes events preceding the Revolutionary War. However, many students find the book heavy. The pioneer spirit is well represented with Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, My Antonia by Willa Cather, and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Patria Press ( publishes fictionalized biographies that depict the childhoods of Americans who later became famous for their contributions.

In Times Past by Carol Otis Hurst and Rebecca Otis is an encyclopedia for integrating U.S. history with literature in grades 3 through 8. You can find subjects and themes, as well as a list of books recommended, at Many of the recommended books also have suggested activities.

Another helpful site, which has 5,000 picture books searchable by topic, is

Hands-On English will put a wealth of information at your fingertips so that you can quickly find what you need to know about grammar, usage, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, and more. Get details -- and place your order -- at

We invite your questions for this feature:

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Do You Have Your Hands-On English?

For Teachers

If you're not already using Hands-On English materials as your principal language arts curriculum, why not order the "Package" as a supplement to your present program? The "Package" includes Hands-On English (a handbook that provides quick access to English fundamentals and makes grammar visual by using icons to represent parts of speech), The Activity Book (158 reproducible pages), and Hands-On Sentences (a card game that gives practice with parts of speech and sentence construction).

Using the materials as a supplement is an excellent way to try them out. You'll see what a tremendous benefit it would be for each student to have a personal copy of Hands-On English.

Substantial discounts are available on quantity purchases. You can order by phone, fax, Internet, or snail mail. Visa and MasterCard are accepted; schools or other institutions can use a purchase order.

If you have questions, or call Fran at 1-888-641-5353. (Use this same number for phone and fax orders.)

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For Parents and Others

People who have Hands-On English at their fingertips will quickly be able to find answers to questions they may have about sentence structure, usage, capitalization, punctuation, outlines, bibliography form, and more. They will learn how to study efficiently so that they can get the most from their textbooks in the least amount of time, and they will learn how to break the writing process into manageable units. This valuable resource will facilitate completion of homework. (You might want to order one copy for each child and an additional copy as a resource for yourself.)

Ordering as few as six copies will qualify you for a quantity discount. You can order by phone, fax, Internet, or snail mail. Visa and MasterCard are accepted; schools or other institutions can use a purchase order.

If you have questions, or call (toll free) 1-888-641-5353. (Use this same number for phone and fax orders.)

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"For School Success, Don't Coddle Your Kids"

Whether you are an educator or a parent, you will find these two dozen tips helpful in promoting a successful school year for students. Find the printable version at If you are an educator, you might want to give this to parents at back-to-school night. If you are the parent of a school child, use the article yourself and share it with your friends.

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Finding Picture Books to Meet Your Needs

Excellent resources are available to help you find picture books to enhance class activities. These can be used with students of all ages -- even adults. They can supplement all curricular areas, including character education. In addition, they can help people deal with difficult emotional issues.

One of the most comprehensive books in the field is A To Zoo: Subject Access to Children's Picture Books by Carolyn W. Lima and John A. Lima. It catalogs nearly 23,000 titles (both new and out-of-print) in more than 1200 subjects. Subject headings are listed in addition to a Subject Guide, which lists books (and their authors) for each subject. Detailed information about each book -- including the various subjects under which the book is catalogued -- is given in the Bibliographic Guide, which is arranged alphabetically by author. A Title Index provides the page of each book's bibliographic entry, and an Illustrator Index is also included.
Published by Bowker-Greenwood, 2001. 1,771 pages.

The Children's Literature Dictionary: Definitions, Resources, and Learning Activities by Kathy H. Latrobe, Carolyn S. Brodie, and Maureen White defines 325 terms relevant to children's literature. These terms are arranged alphabetically, and each entry includes examples from quality children's literature. Most of the literature catalogued is intended for upper elementary or middle school readers (therefore, many of these are not picture books). In addition to the titles, the dictionary briefly describes activities to help students assimilate the target concepts. The book includes a bibliography, an author index, and a title index (including author, publisher, copyright date, and the "terms" under which each book is catalogued).
Published by Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., 2002. 282 pages.

Using Picture Storybooks to Teach Literary Devices: Recommended Books for Children and Young Adults (Volume Two)by Susan Hall is exactly the resource its title suggests it to be. It includes 31 literary devices arranged alphabetically. Each term is defined and briefly illustrated. Then entries describe the sources exemplifying that term. In addition to title, author, illustrator, publisher, and copyright date, the bibliographic entry for each source includes a sentence summary and an example of how the source illustrates the literary device, usually with direct quotations from the book. The entry also lists other literary devices for the book (which have their own entries). Finally, the entry indicates the style of art used in the book and probable curricular tie-ins. The sentence summary and the descriptive example are especially helpful in determining the book's appropriateness for particular students.

This resource also includes useful appendices. The sources are listed alphabetically by title (with author, publisher, copyright date, and targeted literary devices). In addition, the books are listed by artistic styles and techniques (cartoon, impressionism, realism, and six others) and by curricular tie-in (including subcategories as well as major subject areas). Finally, an index includes titles, authors, and literary terms in one alphabetical list.
Published by Oryx Press, 1994. 239 pages.

While I was able to examine only Volume 2 of this book, Volume 3 (published in 2002) sounds as if it has a similar format and would also be an excellent resource. It includes 41 literary devices and 120 "well-reviewed" books, most of them published within the last few years.

The following Web page lists several resources for each of ten literary devices:

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Using Picture Books to Teach Literary Devices

Picture books can effectively illustrate literary devices, even for students older than the audience for whom the books were originally intended. Because the books are short, development of a concept over an entire book can be examined in a few minutes.

The following picture books, in addition to telling a good story, provide clear examples of the devices indicated (perhaps other devices as well). While you will not find all of these titles on the shelf at your favorite bookstore, most of them are available by special order, from your local library, or from .


Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. As an old woman, Miss Rumphius looks back on her life and recalls her childhood dreams.

Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco. Two young soldiers, separated from their units, struggle to survive during the Civil War. This is a true story, framed as a flashback by the author, great- great-granddaughter of one of the soldiers.

The House on Maple Street by Bonnie Pryor. From the present use of the house on Maple Street, the narrator jumps back three hundred years to a time when the land was occupied only by animals. Then she briefly relates the history of the plot of ground and its sequence of residents.

The Promise by Larry Johnston. At calving time a farmer enlists the help of a young neighbor girl who has a special talent for dealing with cows. This story employs several flashbacks, one to the immediate past, another to a time decades earlier that directly affects events in the present.


Shortcut by David Macaulay. Examination of the illustrations in these nine short stories (one as short as four pages and twenty- one words) reveals how the stories are interrelated. Inference, as well as foreshadowing, is very much involved here.

The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau by Jon Agee. Although critics first ridicule Clousseau's painting of a duck, their opinions change when the subject comes to life.

Point of View

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! by A. Wolf by Jon Scieszka. Told by the wolf himself, this version of the story is decidedly different from the original -- and highly entertaining.

The First Song Ever Sung by Laura Krauss Melmed. A young boy asks various relatives -- and a few animals, "What was the first song ever sung?" Their different replies reflect different points of view.

Mandy by Barbara D. Booth. Mandy's deafness affects her perspective on the world.

The Wall by Eve Bunting. A small boy describes his visit, with his father, to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in search of his grandpa's name. Those two characters -- as well as other visitors to the wall -- experience the event somewhat differently.

Sachiko Means Happiness by Kimiko Sakai. A young girl describes the frustrations and rewards of spending time with her grandmother, who has Alzheimer's disease. Not only do the characters have different viewpoints, but each of the major characters has different outlooks at different times.

Not picture books, but such exceptional examples that they cannot be ignored:

Nothing But The Truth: A Documentary Novel by Avi. A documentary novel reveals the controversy regarding a student's alleged infraction of a rule requiring students to stand at "respectful, silent attention" during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" over the school intercom. This story has no narrator; each character's viewpoint is presented firsthand through letters, memos, transcripts of conversations, diary entries, etc.

The Pigman by Paul Zindel. Although in many ways you probably would not want your children to emulate the teenagers in this novel, the book deals powerfully with responsibility. John and Lorraine, the main characters, take turns narrating chapters, providing different points of view and ultimately providing a parallax view of the events of the story.

Each of these two books is recommended for students sixth grade and older.


Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting. A homeless child describes how he and his father live in an airport, escaping notice and working toward a better life. A bird that is temporarily trapped in the terminal becomes an effective symbol of their existence.

The Lotus Seed by Sherry Garland. A lotus seed is a treasured reminder of a woman's life in Vietnam.

The Rag Coat by Lauren Mills. At first, children tease Minna because her coat is made of scraps of cloth. Later they learn that each scrap holds a story -- and that some of the stories are theirs.

A Baker's Portrait by Michelle Edwards. A portrait painter, who is getting little business because she paints just what she sees, learns to see beneath her subjects' unattractive exteriors.

Kinda Blue by Ann Grifalconi. Six-year-old Sissy, "seized by a fit of lonely" learns that people, as well as plants, can perk up with a little attention. (Includes dialect.)

If you have books that you like to use to illustrate these or other literary devices, please send me information about them (the kinds of information included in the entries above).

I will publish your suggestions in a future issue of LinguaPhile and will be happy to give you credit for your contributions; just include the identification you would prefer, such as name, teacher or homeschooler, city, e-mail address.

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Puzzler: Contranyms

Challenge your brain to think in opposite directions simultaneously. Can you think of one word (same spelling, same pronunciation) for each pair of opposite meanings?

Example: to remove particles from; to spread particles on (dust -- dust the table, dust the roses)

1. rapidly from place to place; firmly in one place
2. to stumble; to move gracefully
3. alongside; against
4. to fasten securely; to spring away suddenly
5. to endure; to decay
6. to soften; to strengthen
7. close supervision; neglect
8. to proceed; to postpone

Answers next month.

Answers to August Puzzler

Some words that name both colors and things: burgundy, flesh, gold, green, lavender, lemon, lilac, lime, navy, olive, peach, pink, plum, rose, salmon, shrimp, silver, slate, tan, tangerine, violet.

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Thank you for reading. If you find LinguaPhile helpful and interesting, don't keep it a secret! Consider which of your friends would also enjoy it, and send them information about subscribing. We welcome your comments and suggestions:

The index to LinguaPhile, which is updated monthly, is now available in either a text or .doc format on the GrammarAndMore Web site:
This makes the information from previous issues readily accessible. You are encouraged to print the index for your convenience or to share it with friends. Why not send them the URL of the text version?
It's a gift you can give, yet still have for yourself!

© 2002 Fran Santoro Hamilton


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