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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  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Outstanding! Obviuosly I knew the plural forms as irregualr but I never realized they were catagorized. Now I can truly say I learned something useful today. :)

  • Dale

    Hmm… although academically correct, is it truly wrong to say “candelabra” instead of “candelabrum?” After all, we normally refer to stadiums instead of stadii, and to forums instead of fora. At what point does common usage become the norm, replacing earlier rules?

  • Beshie

    I believe a candelabrum holds one candle, but a candelabra can be one fixture holding several (or more than one). True?

  • Kristen inDallas

    Hoping you continue this and talk about the word data (as in – class noun or plural). I get so annoyed when people correct me from “the data is inconclusive” to “the data are inconclusive.” Because I have no intention of communicating the conclusivity of each individual data point, but rather the ability to draw conclusions from the whole of all available data. Besides, no one ever tells the IT guys they should refer to datum-processing or datum-storage. Please vindicate me, grammar guy! :)

  • David J. White

    one electron, two electrons
    one mastodon, two mastodons

    But “mastodon” doesn’t really follow that second-declension neuter pattern. The -odon part comes from odous (Ionic odwn), odontis, “tooth,” so really, the Greek plural of “mastodon,” if we used it, would be mastodontes.

    Similarly, “octopus” doesn’t follow the second-declension masculine pattern of “alumnus” and “radius”, because the “-pus” is from pous, podos, “foot,” so the Greek plural of “octopus” is octopodes. “Octopi,” which I hear often, is the result of people having learned the pattern and trying to apply it, without realizing that “octopus” doesn’t really fit into that pattern.

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

    one alumnus + one alumna = two alumni

    I can tell nowadays that my students have been thoroughly indoctrinated not to regard the masculine as the collective (e.g., they have been told that to say “let every student hand in his homework” is unacceptable) that in Latin class, many of them instinctively want to use the neuter as the collective, even for people.

  • disqus_TvoTw0wy2j

    What about crisis/crises and thesis/theses and emphasis/emphases?