The Grammarphobia Blog

From minutia to minutiae

Q: I never hear people say “minutia” and mean “minutia” (i.e., a minor detail). They always use it to mean “minutiae” (minor details). And they pronounce it mi-NOO-shee-uh or mi-NOO-shuh, which is understandable considering how ungainly mi-NOO-shee-ee is. Are we witnessing the conflation of these singular and plural forms?

A: Standard dictionaries define “minutia” as a small or trivial detail, and “minutiae” as small or trivial details. Yet “minutia” is often used to mean “minutiae,” and “minutiae” is often pronounced like “minutia.”

This is nothing new, however. Both words have been used as singulars and plurals since they first showed up in English in the 18th century. And their pronunciations have been all over the place.

Confused? Well, don’t look to Latin for help.

In classical Latin, “minutia” didn’t even mean a small or minor detail, nor did “minutiae” mean small or minor details. Here are the details.

The source of these two words was minutus, which meant small in classical Latin. Minutia and minutiae were singular and plural nouns for smallness—the quality or state of being small.

In the late Latin of the 4th century, minutiae came to mean small or trivial details, but minutia continued to mean smallness.

It wasn’t until “minutia” showed up in English in the 18th century that it took on its small or trivial sense—in both singular and plural versions!

The first of these Latin words to enter English was “minutiae,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it initially as a plural meaning “precise details; small or trivial matters or points.”

The earliest example in the OED is from Samuel Richardson’s 1748 epistolary novel Clarissa: “I have always told you the consequence of attending to the minutiæ.”

However, the dictionary also has examples from the late 18th century to the year 2000 of “minutiae” used in the singular to mean “a precise detail; a small or trivial matter or point”—that is, “minutia.”

The first OED citation for “minutiae” used in the singular is from The Beggar Girl and Her Benefactors, a 1797 novel by Anna Maria Bennett (she wrote as “Mrs. Bennett”): “Strict attention to every minutiæ of her domestic arrangement.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the singular “minutia” is from Elizabeth Blower’s 1782 novel George Bateman: “On the observance of some little minutias, no small share of the beauty … depended.”

The first Oxford example that refers to just one “minutia” is from Washington Irving’s 1841 biography of the poet Margaret Miller Davidson:

“That holy patriotism which could toil and bleed, ere it would yield one single minutia of that independence bequeathed to them by the valour of their immortal sires.”

The earliest written example of “minutia” used in the plural is from Charles Burney’s Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Abate Metastasio (1796): “Descending to the minutia of all the events and occasions which may be imagined.”

The OED offers the singular and plural versions of both “minutia” and “minutiae” with no warning labels—in other words, no indication that these usages are anything but standard English.

Only a handful of standard dictionaries in the US and the UK have entries for the singular “minutia,” perhaps because the word is used so rarely to mean a small or trivial detail. When we see “minutia” online, it’s almost always used as a plural.

In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language dropped its entry for the singular “minutia” from the latest edition, the fifth.

Pronunciation guides in standard American dictionaries indicate that “minutia” is pronounced mi-NOO-shee-uh and “minutiae” is pronounced mi-NOO-shee-ee,  mi-NOO-shee-eye, mi-NOO-shee-uh, or mi-NOO-shuh. The NOO in both words can also be NYOO.

However, our experience is that many, if not most, Americans pronounce “minutiae” as mi-NOO-shuh. And few Americans use “minutia” to mean a small detail.

As for British pronunciations, the OED says “minutia” can be either my-NYOO-shee-uh or mi-NYOO-shee-uh while “minutiae” can my-NYOO-shee-eye, mi-NYOO-shee-eye, my-NYOO-shee-ee, or mi-NYOO-shee-ee.

In other words, you can probably defend just about any likely use of “minutia” and “minutiae.”

As for us, we pronounce “minutiae” as mi-NOO-shuh. And we don’t use “minutia.” If we did want to refer to a small or trivial detail, we suppose we’d call it something like a “trifle,” a “triviality,” or perhaps even a “trivial detail.”

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