Grammar Lesson of the Day: Foreign Plurals

Grammar Lesson of the Day: Foreign Plurals

There are four groups of nouns from Latin and Greek that we’ve borrowed into English directly, using both singular and plural forms.  These aren’t too hard to remember, if we focus on the singular rather than on the plural:

Greek neuter singular nouns ending in –on (-ion); plural in –a (-ia):

one phenomenon, two phenomena
one criterion, two criteria

But newly coined words with Greek singular forms simply add the usual s for the plural:

one electron, two electrons
one mastodon, two mastodons

Next come Latin singular nouns ending in –um (-ium); plural in –a (-ia); these are just the Latin versions of the words in the previous group:

one bacterium, two bacteria
one candelabrum, two candelabra (!)

“George,” says Bugs Liberace to Elmer Fudd, giving him a lampstand full of sticks of dynamite, “take dis candelabra over to Mother, George.”  That was supposed to be a joke – even before the bang.
Then we have Latin masculine nouns ending in –us; plural in –i:

one alumnus, two alumni
one radius, two radii
one bacillus, two bacilli

And Latin (or Greek) feminine nouns ending in –a; plural in –ae:

one alumna, two alumnae
one vertebra, two vertebrae

When you have a plural that refers to both men and woman, use the masculine:

one alumnus + one alumna = two alumni

The most frequent error is to mistake a feminine singular for a neuter plural, as Bugs did.  Then we get what Edwin Newman in Strictly Speaking poked fun at, in newspapers forty years ago, and things haven’t gotten any better since: What a phenomena!  Oof.


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