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The Vine: September 25, 2013

Submitted by on September 25, 2013 – 4:13 PM45 Comments

vine

I'm hoping you can settle a grammar discussion for me. What's the accepted rule for pluralizing words that come from other languages?

My understanding is that, even in formal writing, it's acceptable for foreign words to follow English grammar rules once they are commonly used in English. 

The argument was over the plural of "octopus." I maintain that "octopii" is an overcorrection, since we're speaking modern English, not Latin. It's "octopuses." And that goes double for people who think more than one penis is "penii," which isn't even grammatically correct in Latin. Same with "opus" — the proper plural is "opuses," not "opera." The plural of "fungus" is "funguses," not "fungi." And so on. The point of language is to communicate clearly across a population, not to show off what you remember from high school. 

What's the accepted grammar rule here? 

Octopeeved 

Dear Peeved,

Garner's note on "borrowed words" actually uses "octopus" as one of its examples (the correct Latin plural is "octopodes," for the record), and warns against hypercorrection: "Many imported words become thoroughly naturalized; if so, they take an English plural. But if a word of Latin and Greek origin is relatively rare in English — or if the foreign plural became established in English long ago — then it typically makes its foreign plural."

But he also points out, "Literate people say crises, not crisisescriteria, not criterionshypotheses, not hypothesises; and phenomena, not phenomenons." Exceptions exist; it depends. Most people I know would in fact say "fungi," and while I can't lie that "peni" doesn't bug me, if it's just people sitting around talking, who cares. I mean, when we ran out of facial tissues at my parents' house, I would add "Kleenices" to the shopping list; two bottles of Windex? "Windices." My father to this day renders "half-and-half" as "1" (…give it a minute). That's just our humor. It's not worth getting mad about.

When in doubt, Garner counsels going with the English plural, so you're right, and if a Latinate plural shows up in writing you're responsible for, feel free to edit it to an English plural. But pluralizations like "octopodes" and "cacti" aren't wrong per se, so if it's just something someone says in conversation, let it go.

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45 Comments »

  • Jesse says:

    When hypercorrection attacks: An old coworker of mine would talk about one matrice.

  • Jen S. 2.0 says:

    **snortlaugh!** at "1."

  • attica says:

    It's not penii, it's penes. Don't know when I learned that, but there it is.

    I also learned that a person with anorexia is anorectic, but I've only ever heard people use 'anorexic'. So I yield to that (even though I quite like the glottal-stop-tongue-click version better).

    I would consider the audience to see how correct I should get. An academic paper would demand less Englishing up than, say a comments forum on a website. Whereon I feel completely free to go with a usage like 'englishing up.'

  • JenV says:

    Yay, octopodes is my favorite pluralization! One minor quibble – I thought "octopus" was Greek, not Latin, and thus that is why "octopodes" is the plural form.

  • RJ says:

    Nothing substantive to add, just that I've been sitting here mumbling "hypothesises" under my breath for at least two minutes straight. It's so weird that it makes me feel like I have a lisp.

  • Courtney says:

    @JenV, I think you're right–or at least, I think that's what my 9th-grade geometry teacher told us, & why would he be wrong (…about grammar).

    "octopodes" is also the source of a stupidly long-running inside joke between me and my husband, in which the singular of bus is "bode" & the plural is "bodes." it doesn't really make any sense, but I think you can see how it developed.

  • anon says:

    I'm a scientist, specifically a microbiologist with a specialty in mycology (study of fungi). If one of my students used "funguses" or "hypothesises" in scientific writing, I'd correct it faster than you could say "nonstandard" or "journals don't allow that." Fortunately I have yet to meet a scientist that says "hypothesises," although first year grad students usually require at least one reminder that "data" is plural.

  • anon says:

    Data *are* plural. Apparently I require occasional reminders, too.

  • Georgia says:

    Maybe it's just to avoid confusion lest there's a discussion about multiple clairvoyants, but most people tend to say "media" rather than "mediums."

  • Robin in Philly says:

    This reminds me of a conversation I once had with my Latin professor regarding my favourite animal, the platypus. It ended with a sprint to a dictionary and a vehement outburst on his part (the words "fake" and "Latinate" were in there somewhere…).

    Consequently, I am the only person I know who pluralizes it "platypodes."

  • Rodrigo says:

    Bryan Garner is a hack lawyer who has no credentials that warrant his being taken as some sort of eminent authority on American English usage. He has no advanced degrees in the field of linguistics and has never had any of his work published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. Going to Garner in search of advice on the subject of English grammar is akin to reaching out to a creationist to learn more about evolutionary biology. He resorts to base insults to malign anyone who doesn't use English in the way that it's used in the fantasy world that he's dreamt up. Prime example: "Literate people say X." Really, Garner? Do you have any citations at all to back up the claims that you're making? So someone who deviates from your idiotic "standard" is illiterate? After Garner takes a course on introductory linguistics he should take one on beginning logic and learn what a question-begging argument is. Note well the "say" in that quotation. We're not even talking about the written language here. But you can bet your bottom dollar that Garner hasn't researched any American English spoken-language corpora. That would mean that he would be performing the role of a person who actually is a usage authority, which he most assuredly is not.

  • MAF says:

    By the time this comment has been approved, there will probably be 15 people ahead of me saying this, but JenV is right: octopus is Greek, not Latin, and "octopi" is a mistake (if you're in a prescriptivist mood) based on the fact that it looks like a Latin noun. Wikipedia has the scoop.

    I was shocked when I discovered that, maybe a year or two ago, and ever since then it's just stuck out like, well, eight sore thumbs.

    (If I were going to be extra pedantic, I'd point out that "octopii" would be a mistake even if it were a Latin word and we were speaking Latin. But I'm not. Hey, did anybody else grow up thinking "misle" was a verb?)

  • Wehaf says:

    I love Vine letters like this; they give me all kinds of linguistic datums points.

  • Barb says:

    JESSE: is a matrice one cell in a matrix?

  • Maria says:

    Oh, this just makes me want to develop wordy work-arounds for never having to use the plural! I'm stumped at how you would make thesis plural. Theses? It looks likes it should pair with thems and thoses. ;o)

    Sars, your dad is hilarious!!!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Rodrigo: And your credentials for emptying both barrels into the guy are…? He's a recognized authority, at least here. Go lie down.

  • Sandman says:

    My understanding was that octopus is actually a cobbled-together word; scientific Latin, based on the Greek word for "eight." The plural octopodes follows the Greek model, but the singular ending does not. Related(…ish) things that irk me are confusion between words with Latin roots (like penis) and words with Greek roots (iris). In their original forms, they don't form plurals the same way. Probably just as well that we pluralize them according to the English rules.

    Also: where did the habit of doubling the "i" to signify plurals come from? Geometry class, maybe? "Radius" already has a "i", so the Latin plural gets another one, but not every Latin-looking word has a plural ending in "-ii." I've seen "penii," "octopii" (not just here), even "cellii" (for more than one cello)! No.

    Er. Thank you. This concludes today's rant. We now return to your regularly scheduled Nation, already in progress.

  • Wehaf says:

    @Maria, the plural of thesis is theses. And all my sheeps, mooses, and gooses agree.

  • Sandman says:

    @attica: I feel I have to yield on "anorectic," too, but I'm glad to know I may not be the only one who doesn't want to.

  • Cora says:

    So, Octopeeved, I'm guessing Rodrigo is the douchecanoe who keeps hovering over your cubicle to talk about octopi and peni?

  • Lisa M. says:

    @Maria, "theses" is the plural of thesis. In research, we tend to refer to theses a lot, but I imagine that most normal people don't :)

    also, the fact that it rhymes with feces never fails to crack me up (inside, where the non-professional professor resides)

  • Cara says:

    I have nothing to add other than I am totally using "Kleenices" on all my shopping lists from now on.

  • JenV says:

    @Robin in Philly – OMG PLATYPODES!!!! I love it even more than octopodes. I totally didn't make the connection that platypus would be pluralized the same way! Day, made.

  • Sarah says:

    Curious if you've read DFW on Garner (now that we're talking about Garner)? If so, thoughts?

  • Sandman says:

    Radius already has an "i," obvi. Er. Obvii. Clearly I need to go lie down now. ::slinks away::

  • Leigh says:

    …but if we can't say "fungi" then my husband's nerdy "I'm a fun guy" t-shirt would make no sense! Argument rejected.

    (In all seriousness, I would say that "fungi" and "cacti" fall under the "long adopted, just go with it" rule. Fascinating about octopus, though, and I definitely agree that things like penii and other awkward overcorrections have got to go.)

  • Tracey says:

    "Kleenices" has been Household Standard around here for many years. And add me to the Father-of-Sars love list, because "1" is brilliant.

    anon, I think you were right the first time. We say that the word "data" is plural – there's just one word. But we say, "The data are…." because the the plural word "data" requires the plural form of the verb. (At least, we say that when I'm doing the writing or editing.)

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    ….I….

    …don't get the "1" joke.

    *hangs head*

  • Buttermilk says:

    @anon:
    "Data" is a plural word. I don't think we should say "data are plural". That suggests to me that each datum is plural by itself. And that doesn't make any sense. Am I wrong here?

    About plural words ending in 'x'…I hear the name "Felix" is growing in popularity among baby names this year. Does that mean my baby Felix will encounter many Felices in school?

  • Jesse says:

    Barb: One matrix. She got distracted by the fact that for whatever reason, we said "matrices" and not "matrixes." ("Whatever reason" being that our mutual boss was a weirdly fake-academic snob.)

  • Nanc in Ashland says:

    I'm sorely tempted to finally establish a Twitter account just so my first tweet can be "Penis grammar discussion with the nation." Or something juvenile along those lines.

    I'm also out of 1–thanks Sars' dad for having to put fewer letters on my shopping list!

  • attica says:

    I spent the summer reading diaries by British aristocrats who settled the American West (…as you do), and was struck/delighted with one particular usage. Instead of citing heads of cattle stolen by Natives or other ranchers, they cited the number of 'beeves.' I clasped that form to my bosom, and now helplessly giggle whenever I see 'em grazing. If they look unsettled, I then get to say (to myself or out loud, makes no diff), "I'm worried about the beeves!"

  • Erin in SLC says:

    I admit my hands still curl into angry little fists when I hear someone refer to a "left parenthe-see." I'm working on it.

  • Batmom says:

    So is this the right place to ask what the past tense of 'to shit' is? Most people I know say that it's 'shat' but seem to base that conclusion on little more than that shit rhymes with sit, and the past tense of 'to sit' is 'sat'.

    My understanding is that irregular verbs picked up their conjugation quirks from their language of origins so using the same rules for 'to shit' as 'to sit' only makes sense if they share the same linguistic origin.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I have read DFW on Garner. I remember enjoying it…? It was a while ago. His coverage seemed fairly balanced.

    Garner also notes in that entry (it's somewhat lengthy) that the usage will vary if the context is scientific/botanic/what have you (viz. "cactus"/"cacti"). All part of the "know your audience" thing. Researchers will likely approach the usage of the word "data" in a different way from the TV critic.

    As for "shit," I'm fine with "shat" as the past tense, but we have so many elaborate euphemisms for THAT that I don't know when a simple "shat" would come up. "Touring the Throne Room" is currently in favor.

  • JC says:

    I fondly remember a junior high teacher who over-emphatically made the point on "phenomena" vs. "phenomenons" during one of her rants. It sparked the need for 13-year-old need for rebellion among me and my friends. We also realized that "phenomenons" had a certain mystical quality if you said it in an appropriately dreamy fashion.

    To this day, I still have to think twice as to which form is actually correct.

  • Lisa says:

    Totally off subject — no, actually on subject — y'all HAVE to check out this book! MAJOR awesomeness for book/language/print geeks! Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks

  • Sandman says:

    ::whispers to Jen S. 1.0:: Sars' dad is just rationalizing two fractions, really.

    @JC: Is it wrong that I'm hoping you and your classmates sang the word "phenomenons" to the tune of the "Manah-manah" song from Sesame Street?

    … you're welcome.

  • Sophie says:

    @Attica…"beeves" is my new favorite word. I'm seriously still chuckling out loud. I'm going to use it in a sentence today.

  • Jo says:

    @Jen S. 1.0: think of the "and" in half-and-half as a plus sign.

    That's my new favorite. I need some of that stuff to cook this weekend. I think I'll just tell my husband to buy me some "1."

    Also, loving octopodes. I thought it was octopuses, but octopodes is amazing.

  • Georgia says:

    @ Jen S. 1.0: Because "half" and (e.g., plus) "half" equals "1."

  • Katherine says:

    A few years ago in Toronto we had a city-wide art installation. It was similar to one done in Chicago where, I believe, they used fiberglass cows. In Toronto we had fiberglass moose, and various artists and companies painted them up and placed them throughout downtown.

    These things delighted me, and I called them 'meese' in the plural, just because the whimsy seemed to fit. In the long run, however, I succeeded only in confusing myself, so now I have to stop and think which version is actually correct.

  • Sandman says:

    Okay, now I'm anticipating flabbergastment on the part of Husband of Jo, having to explain that you can't just buy someone.

  • Jill TX says:

    It's nice to know there are people out there who get why "penii" is especially idiotic. I spend so much time correcting (ostensibly) college-level papers that use "women" as a singular noun that I start to think there's something wrong with me for caring about basic grammar. Thanks guys. I hope you all have a week free of seeing anything "pluralized" via apostrophe.

  • Sandman says:

    Jill TX, you're definitely among friends here. I have to say, I thought of the Nation this morning on the bus when I glanced at another rider's newspaper, open to an op-ed piece on the Pope entitled "The Two Francises."

    I of course immediately thought "1 Francis, 2 Frances? No, that can't be it. Francides?" And then it came to me: Francopodes!

    (Or, you know, the editors could have recast the headline as "The Two Popes Francis" and called it a day.)

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