Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mumpsimism

Usage expert Bryan Garner recently republished an article whose thesis can be summed up this way:  Lawyers have a hard time letting go of stylistic preferences even when evidence abounds that these preferences are wrong-headed or even counter-productive. Garner describes this syndrome as “mumpsimism.”

The OED defines “mumpsimism” as “an obstinate adherent of old ways, in spite of clear evidence of their error,” and suggests that the term comes from a story of an illiterate priest who, when told that the Latin term in the Eucharist that he was looking for was sumpsimus not mumpsimus, the priest replied in a huff, ‘I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.”  
As an example of lawyers’ modern-day refusal to abandon mumpsimus for sumpsimus, Garner tells a story that features himself in the role of the illiterate priest. He describes how he had once dogmatically insisted on two spaces after every period; he then explains his painful conversion to the preferable one-space approach; and he finally concludes that: “Today I feel a very mild revulsion at seeing two spaces after a period. And slight pity. But I understand the strong feelings of those who persist.”
This story made me smile with the kind of pained recognition that can only come from looking too closely in the mirror.
When I started teaching legal writing, I announced to my students at some point that, although there were barbarians out there who were content with but one space between sentences, I was no such barbarian. Therefore, if they did not wish to make my skin crawl as I reviewed their research memos, they should commit themselves to ensuring that two spaces appeared after each and every period. I was not sure exactly why I felt so strongly about this convention. After all, I never took typing in high school. Indeed, I never really learned how to type—the proper way.  Gaining access to a computer at the dawn of the word-processing age, I’d never looked back; I’d simply become very adept at my own idiosyncratic approach (and exceedingly grateful for the “Backspace” key). But somewhere along the way, I got it into my head that two spaces after a period was de rigueur. So much so that, upon reviewing a document in which an author had “slipped up” and placed but one space between sentences, my eye would twitch and my lower track rumble.
Fast forward a few years. Thanks to a student here and a colleague there, I read articles about this typographic controversy and learned that the “two spaces” approach was totally Old School, and not in a good way. The convention had been called into question by those with more refined aesthetic sensibilities as a mere relic of the typewriter era, which, as I noted above, I’d never even occupied in the first place. Soon I was convinced that the Old-School approach really did impinge on a text’s readability. And with great pains to my kinesthetic memory, I made the adjustment, vowing thenceforth to use but one space after each period (and after each colon too, for good measure). I then humbly shared with my students my dawning awareness of the two camps, their conflicting, fiercely held convictions with respect to the RIGHT way to deal with this matter, and my own recent ideological conversion. I concluded by giving them the freedom to decide which camp with which to align themselves—with impunity—so long as they were consistent in implementing their choice because inconsistency was a thing that I most certainly could not tolerate.
Not long after making this humbling confession/concession, I returned to practicing law full-time. The very first feedback I received on a brief I wrote for another lawyer did not address the substance of my arguments, the resonance of my case illustrations, or the elegance of my rhetorical flourishes.  Oh no. The sole feedback I received was: “Please be sure to include two spaces after every period. Just one of those things that makes the practice of law go round.”
As I read this email, my eye twitched and my lower track rumbled.
The same day that I was revisiting these happy memories thanks to Garner’s article, I happened to hear a segment called “Two Guys on Your Head” on KUT radio.  In this piece, “Debunking Myths Behind Different Learning Styles,”  the two guys, professors Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, explain how the theory that people can be classified by learning style—visual learner, auditory learner, and what not—is a vast oversimplification.  Yet pedagogues and social scientists continue to insist on the idea’s validity. This seemed like another example of “mumpsimism” that I was being asked to confront!?
Yes, although the example is a tad more subtle.
It is true that there are different ways to go about learning something. And many of us may have ways we prefer to learn. I, for instance, have a much tougher time processing information conveyed aurally and vastly prefer seeing stuff spelled out for me in text.  But these two guys say that the misconception is not that different learning modes exist but in believing that a person can be classified as a type of learner. For in fact, we can all learn through different modalities. And the likelihood of learning something—anything—improves for most folks if we are exposed to concepts through more than one modality at a time. It is mumpsimism to continue to try to place individuals in boxes defined by a single learning modality because vast evidence shows that learning is almost always a multivalent phenomenon. Yet if one is a school administrator or a person seeking a Masters degree in Education, a really effective way to shake up some grant money might be a promise to explore “lesson plans tailored to distinct learning modalities to increase student success.”
All this talk of mumpsimism reminds me of a certain passage from Henry VI, Part 1, when Basset (of the House of Lancaster) and Talbot (of the House of York) “upbraid” each other “about the rose [they] wear” and then beg for permission to defend the honor of their respective houses by invoking “the benefit of law of arms.” King Henry, rather sanely, responds to these contentions thus: “Good Lord, what madness rules in brainsick men,/ When for so slight and frivolous a cause/ Such factious emulations shall arise! [IV.1.1876+]. Yet these "slight and frivolous" causes are the things that often seem most likely to make our eyes twitch, our lower tracks rumble, and our racing pulses demand vindication through the "law of arms." Why might that be?

1 comment:

  1. Okay, I give in. One space it is then. My daughter (11) was right. I throw in the fight. But now I have to know. Is North South? Sandstorms snow? My world is all a'tumble. My patriarchy humbled. I give up the fray. What to do now, pray? What say? What say?

    We read this one together, my little grammarian and I, just so she could gloat. I hope you're happy.

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