Is this question rhetorical?

(A review of MooT from Word Ways: Journal of Recreational Linguistics, Volume 23, Number 4)

Pop grammarians such as William Safire, wincing when President Bush confuses lay with lie, inveigh against misuses of the English language. But for Joe Citizen, reading a book on the do's and don'ts of grammar is about as exciting as kissing his sister or cleaning the garage. Can grammar be made fun, or at least more palatable?

Canadian computer programmer and language aficionado Jon Steeves has answered this by inventing and marketing the game of MooT, a painless way to learn about the meanings and usages of words, not by solitary dictionary lookup, but by discussion among peers. Specifically, it consists of a thousand questions like

(1) A charlatan falsely claims to: be someone or know something

(2) In Latin its name would be "Magus Ozianus." What movie title is it?

(3) Is the word "ineffable" ineffable?

The game can be played either as a form of solitaire in which two to five players discuss each question and jointly arrive at the most plausible answer, or as a two-team effort in which Team A jointly arrives at an answer which Team B is allowed to challenge with an answer of their own.

Colloquy forms the soul of the game: it forces one to refine one's ill-formulated ideas in the face of overlooked evidence. Obviously, the game works best in a group with similar backgrounds (say, coworkers or college graduates). It should appeal to the Word Ways subscriber, but is hopelessly cerebral for the high-school dropout.

Questions are divided into four groups according to level of difficulty, but I found little difference among them. The game would be more interesting if there existed strategies for maximizing one's score (number of correct answers, scaled by difficulty); one determines what level must be answered by the roll of a 12-sided die. Steeves loves wordplay ("Is a pale-complexioned Mexican wan?"). Many questions distinguish between closely-related words (blasé-jaded, enormity-atrocity).


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