The Vine: September 25, 2013
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?
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 crisises; criteria, not criterions; hypotheses, 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.
Tags: Bryan Garner our friend English