John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mumpsimus redux

Mumpsimus is an obstinate determination to hold on to a belief or practice even after it has been demonstrated to be faulty ⎯ a mulish resistance to being informed.

Michael B. Quinion described the origin of the word at World Wide Words in 2001. A medieval priest, either out of deficient literacy or reading from a corrupt text, garbled a phrase in the Latin Mass. Instead of saying quod in ore sumpsimus, “we have taken,” he said quod in ore mumpsimus, which is nonsense.

Corrected by a younger priest, the elder got his back up and, pointing out that he had been saying Mass that way for forty years, declared, “I will not change my old ‘mumpsimus’ for your new ‘sumpsimus.’”

This story, which may have been a scholarly joke of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, came to mind as I read the comments on yesterday’s post about the bogus doctrine of the split infinitive in English. These whippersnapper linguists, the outrage goes, are trying to upset all the rules of grammar that have been in place since God handed them down to an eighth-grade schoolteacher. You know, the “new sumpsimus” that says that the split infinitive is perfectly natural in English. They are not going to give up their “old mumpsimus” until it is pried from their cold, dead hands.

But the plain fact, as anyone who troubles to read the entry in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage or Garner’s Modern American Usage or any other reputable source, for Fowler’s sake, will find that the split infinitive has always been used in English, including by the best writers, and that the prohibition against it was instituted by eighteenth-century grammarians who thought that English ought to resemble Latin. It is not a rule but a superstition, a dogma without foundation.

Significantly, instead of addressing the scholarship, which is upheld by descriptivists and prescriptivists alike, the defenders of this faux rule merely state, over and over, that it is a rule and that anyone who questions it is undermining the standards and purity of the language and opening the gates to the barbarian hordes.

Here is a sample of that line from a comment on yesterday’s post:

I will also recognize that I have been too dependent upon my trust in my teachers and professors who required me to adhere to the aforementioned canon. (Even when I completed my doctorate I received a written form which listed unacceptable language variations, including the split infinitive) in my dissertation.

It is regrettable, deeply regrettable, that the standards of teaching, in elementary schools, secondary schools, colleges and universities, have been so deficient that it falls to me to break the news that possession of a doctorate, or the authority to approve a dissertation, does not convey infallibility in questions of faith, morals, and grammar.

Henry David Thoreau said, “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.” Somewhat more elegantly, H.W. Fowler deplored “the havoc that is wrought by unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma.”

Some of those people up on the battlements braced for the barbarian blitzkrieg are defending the wrong side.

7 comments:

  1. I am preparing siege engines to knock those battlements down.

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  2. Oh, what can I say?

    1) I totally agree with you,
    2) I'm falling in love with the split infinitive and...
    3) I know I'll never forget this post and the funny "mumpsimus" vs. "sumpsimus" thing, which so well illustrates this point.

    Thank you!

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  3. "The strife is o'er, the battle won...."

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  4. By the way, I'd like to pick out this outstanding statement:

    "... possession of a doctorate, or the authority to approve a dissertation, does not convey infallibility in questions of faith, morals, and grammar."

    Yes, I'm also so worried about that... as it means that nothing can improve a person's development.

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  5. Mumpsimus is one of those wonderful words that are next to impossible to remember. Without mumpsimus, we might not have political parties.

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  6. Are you entirely sure that those parentheses are required?

    I like your blog. Entertaining and educational. Thanks :-)

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  7. In my career as a hack .... I'm sorry, public affairs writer ... for a variety of philanthropic organizations, I found the worst reviewers of my work to have PhDs. One, in fact, had two. My favorite reviewer, whom I consider my mentor in writing and editing, was a former reporter who favored bow ties.

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