A TINY PROBLEM?
I’m a fan of New York Times op-ed columnist Gail Collins. She’s intelligent, funny and her politics are liberal. Which was why I was mildly distressed when, a few weeks ago, she ran a piece about gun legislation (did you know that Utah and Arizona now both have official state guns?!) in which she said that “lawmakers did not have enough time to make a miniscule change in state law that would have allowed 20,000 residents to get extended unemployment benefits” (my italics).
In case you think I’m a pathetic pedant, I didn’t really hold it against Collins that she’d perpetrated what is a depressingly common misspelling—miniscule for the correct minuscule. It’s easy to see why people make the mistake—mini is a Latin prefix meaning “small,” right? Although, strictly speaking, the related minus, from which minuscule is derived (from the Latin minor) usually means “less” or “lesser.” We’re all human, and if you’re Collins, knocking out two or three 1,000-word pieces a week at least, it would be surprising if you didn’t make the occasional spelling error. Of course, those errors can be immortalized in print—unlike articles that are published only online (like mine!). I clipped the Collins piece when I read it in the actual newspaper; by the time I came to add a link to it for this article, the copy elves at the Times had corrected the mistake.
I ran a search of the Times for the past 30 days with the following results: miniscule had six hits, five of them readers’ comments, which I ignored, since presumably there was no chance they’d be proofread at the paper. The sixth was a bit embarrassing: another op-ed piece, this time by the U.S. secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, on why we shouldn’t destroy the world’s last known samples (which carry a “miniscule” risk) of smallpox virus. Hmm. Not so healthy!
When I did a search for minuscule, spelled correctly, I got eight hits, none of them readers’ comments, and none of them the Collins piece (perhaps because it had been fixed up post-facto). So overall, I guess you could say the Times didn’t do too badly. Though I’d like to know whether Collins herself picked up the mistake in her piece, as opposed to an editor or another colleague.
You could look it up
Originally I had tut-tutted a bit because I figured that at a minimum Collins should have spellchecked her article in Microsoft Word (assuming that’s what she composed it in—of course, she could have typed it straight into an email, for all I know). But then I ran it through Word, just to verify—and, of course, discovered that Word ignores miniscule. As far as it’s concerned, it’s not a mistake. Next: a couple of non-virtual dictionaries. The Concise Oxford gives only minuscule, with no variants. Merriam-Webster (the 11th edition), as always more “descriptive,” has both, with miniscule as “a variant of minuscule,” and actually goes on to say “it now occurs commonly in published writing, but it continues to be widely regarded as an error.”
So who should know better—surely somebody? Evidently the New York Times still believes that miniscule is an error, even if it doesn’t catch every instance. Even indulgent Merriam-Webster feels compelled to admit that a lot of people think it’s a mistake. I’ve always assumed (based on nothing much) that Word’s dictionary was probably based on M-W; if it is, I guess it allows anything that M-W lists, whether or not with caveats. Pretty poor show. Microsoft Word, should know better!—TAMARA GLENNY