A minuscule matter of spelling

Minuscule’s main use is as an adjective meaning tiny or insignificant. It can also mean written in minuscule (= minuscular), referring to a small cursive mediaeval script. Minuscule as a noun can refer to this palaeographic writing or simply to a lowercase letter.* But its general use as an adjective is what we usually encounter, and it’s the variation in its spelling (minuscule or miniscule) that interests me here.

The word comes from French minuscule, from Latin minusculus, fem. minuscula, as in minuscula littera, ‘slightly smaller letter’. Minuscula is formed by adding the diminutive suffix -cule to minus, neuter of minor — ‘less, smaller’ — from Proto-Indo-European *mei-, ‘small’. The common prefix mini- has probably lent minuscule a folk etymology that influences its contemporary spelling: miniscule is a popular variant. Pronunciation might also have played a part.

Here are some examples of miniscule I’ve come across in books:

There is even a miniscule dance floor for the perpendicular manifestations of horizontal intentions (Hugh Leonard, A Peculiar People)

Only in the microscopic domains of the atom, or the vast reaches of interstellar space, do miniscule discrepancies between nature according to Newton and nature according to Nature make themselves known. (Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice? The New Mathematics of Chaos)

hiragana […] often, in miniscule writing, glosses obscure kanji to help the reader (Steven Roger Fischer, A History of Language)

Miniscule occupies a grey area of legitimacy and is likely to attract criticism. Some call it non-standard; others dismiss it as an error. Bryan Garner rejects it, MWDEU doesn’t, while The Columbia Guide to Standard American English sits on the Fence of Judgement but advises the uncontroversial spelling minuscule. The OED says miniscule is ‘very common but regarded as erroneous’; Oxford Dictionaries considers it an acceptable variant.

Unless you’re prepared to argue miniscule’s case, you’re better off avoiding it. If you want to remember the more correct form, think of its old association with minus, or tell yourself that minuscule is preferred by us.

* Its counterparts are majuscule (n., adj.) and majuscular (adj.).

15 Responses to A minuscule matter of spelling

  1. language hat says:

    Personally, I remember the correct/traditional form by using the alternative pronunciation mi-NUS-cule (with stress on the second syllable rather than the first).

  2. Jonathon says:

    I recently had to teach my coworkers that it’s spelled with a u, not an i. They were all rather surprised.

    When the rising generation of copy editors is unfamiliar with the correct spelling, I start the think that maybe it’s becoming a lost cause.

  3. Tim says:

    I actually had no idea. I didn’t realise that it was wrong to write it as miniscule. Mind you, these days I rely on my browser’s built in spellchecker. A red line, to me, means double check what you have typed. ;)

    I learned something else about spelling today. I got into a discussion about accents (on some forums, not in person). Notably, different British accents (Geordie, Brummie, etc – or would these better be called dialects?); which led me to of course talk about New Zealand accents.

    This led me to wiki “New Zealand English” (a good read, actually), and I was surprised to find that apparently we spell fjord as fiord. I’m not sure about the accuracy of such a claim, because I don’t recall ever having spelt it like that. Although, we do have a place in New Zealand called Fiordland.

    Another thing that was interesting to me was to find that the British tend to alternate somewhat between “-ize” and “-ise” spellings of the suffix. We all know that in America they prefer “-ize”, but in New Zealand English we always choose to spell it i-s-e (as some may have realised if they read my comments).

  4. Sean Jeating says:

    Well, one ought not to ridicule miniscule.
    The more minus you add, the min(n)ier* the result becomes. Or would anybody call a mini-skirt a minus-skirt, hm?

    * As on such bright a morning some beams of sun are even able to reach and open the very layer in the deepest dungeon of my heart where my magnanimity resides, I just cannot but must think of certain poor contemporaries who for a laughter would descend to the cellar. Thus, to conjure a happy open smile on their stiff upper lips, I leave it to the magnanimosity of the members of the Queen’s English Society to decide what spelling they prefer to become standard.

  5. Stan says:

    LH: That’s a useful idea — knowing the former form might help people to avoid the notorious schwa! I don’t think I’ve ever heard the traditional pronunciation, so thorough has the shift in stress been. (Charles Harrington Elster’s book, hyperlinked from the word Pronunciation in par. 2, offers a summary.)

    Jonathon: I’m surprised by your co-workers’ surprise, but you’re probably right: full acceptance (or thereabouts) of miniscule seems a matter of When rather than If.

    Tim: I would say miniscule is widely considered wrong rather than absolutely wrong, and the extent to which it’s considered standard is growing. Relying on a spell-checker is a bad idea. A corpus of usage would be a good way to investigate comparative use of fiord and fjord in New Zealand English. The -ise/-ize issue will require a blog post to itself. I’ve been putting it off…

    Sean: Accept it or reject it, but there’s not a molecule of sense in ridiculing miniscule. I’d be tempted to call this a ‘minus skirt’ — though it’s more a dress than any kind of skirt — but its style, unlike that of miniscule, is undisputed.

  6. I agree with your idea that it comes from pronounciation because in French this spelling variant doesn’t exist – probably because in English minuscule and miniscule sound the same whereas in French you would hear the difference. Saying aloud “miniscule” is quite funny in my language, really :-) I have to imagine what a “scule” is and see myself looking at it through a magnifying glass.


  7. Stan says:

    Aurélie: Thanks for sharing your French perspective. Yes, when the emphasis is placed on the first syllable, the following vowel becomes an unstressed schwa, ə: /’mɪnəskjuːl/. You could imagine a mini-school, but that might only cause confusion!

  8. I spelled this word with an ‘i’ for many years (mind you, I’m not sure how many times I actually wrote it in those years!) until I realised it was spelled like ‘minute’ (o0 – meaning tiny). That’s how I remember. Making links between the meanings of similarly-spelled words or parts of words is a very effective way to remember difficult spellings. Realising that words containing the letters ‘sci’ usually refer to knowledge or awareness helped me to spell nasties like ‘conscious’ and ‘conscience’ – the tricky bit for m was always the ‘s’ and ‘c’.

  9. It’s an easy word to spell incorrectly…I have to think when using it

  10. Stan says:

    Johanna: Thank you for sharing the tip! It’s good to have a variety of mnemonics to choose from — or at least try to remember — and minute (adj.) is another handy way to remember the u.

    Jams: It certainly is, though there are many people even in the publishing business who don’t consider it incorrect; see for example the figures Ben Zimmer dug up.

  11. @Stan : “mini-school” hahahaha – again, not exactly, the French “u” not being the English “u” – phonetically, I would write “mini-school” in French like this : “miniscoule”. And when I see this I imagine someone called Minis drowning (to drown = couler). Oh dear, this is getting really complicated :-p Let’s stick to minuscule, as opposed to majuscule : easy ! :-)

  12. Laura says:

    Writers hoping to have Microsoft Word’s help in spelling will find that its spell-checker won’t flag “miniscule” as a misspelling.

  13. Stan says:

    Aurélie: It’s a deal.

    Laura: True, and Microsoft’s tacit approval has probably contributed to its increasing validity.

  14. John Cowan says:

    The OED3 treats miniscule as a normal word, a synonym of minuscule. The first quotation given for it is “1871 Amer. Encycl. Printing 3001/1 The miniscule is the prevailing character in the Latin manuscript of the ninth century.”

    Only in the etymology section is there an explanation that it is a variant of minuscule derived from the stress shift plus the association with minus and miniature, itself originally unconnected with smallness: miniare in Latin meant ‘rubricate, paint with red lead’.

  15. Tim says:

    We Kiwis are notorious for our use of schwas. As I have said in an earlier comment, try picking out beer from bear, bare and bier. :p

    Reading these comments has reminded me of something: how do you* pronounce the sch sound in “schedule”? I know a few of my countrymen (and possibly women) who say it as “shejule”, but it sounds so wrong in my ears. I’ve always said “skejule”. After all, what other words are pronounced with a soft sch? School, scheme and schematic are all that come to mind (when it comes to actual English words, not schadenfraude or something…).

    * You not being the passive you, but a question directed personally at anyone who reads this comment.

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