Stadia and Aquaria

By Maeve Maddox

Every so often I receive a comment like this one:

Why do you and your countrymen insist on changing the English language? The plural of aquarium is aquaria, stadium is stadia, etc. etc.

I like to believe that such comments are meant playfully, to get a rise out of the American.

For one thing, the commenter must know that the English language was changing long before there were Americans to speak it.

King James I, for whom the first permanent settlement in Virginia was named, would not have understood the English spoken by his predecessor King Alfred. And Queen Elizabeth II does not speak or write the same English that was spoken by King James I.

Today’s standard British English and standard American English are different dialects. Considering that both diverged from a form of English spoken 400 years ago in England, they remain remarkably similar.

As for the plural of nouns in -um, stadiums and aquariums have become the normal plurals in British periodicals as well as in American. Both dialects do retain the plural stadia in the context of Roman history.

The plural aquaria may still be common among British speakers, but in the US, the Latinate plural is more likely to be used by scientists and serious aquarists than by non-specialists.

The style guide for The Guardian and The Observer states this policy:

Latinate -um neuter endings that are a part of the language (eg stadium) take an -s plural.

Note: This style guide does not use periods with e.g., a fact that seems odd to an American: eg no full points.

The Guardian/Observer guide has separate entries for the following -um nouns:

addendum, plural addendums
aquarium, plural aquariums
memorandum, plural memorandums, not memoranda
referendum, plural referendums, not referenda

It also addresses the datum/data debate:

data takes a singular verb (like agenda), though strictly a plural; no one ever uses “agendum” or “datum.”

The Associated Press Stylebook specifies stadiums as the plural of stadium.

The Chicago Manual of Style advises writers to consult a dictionary for “certain words of Latin or Greek origin such as crocus, datum, or alumna.”

Here are some of the plural choices given in Merriam-Webster Unabridged:

aquarium plural aquariums or aquaria
compendium plural compendiums or compendia
crematorium plural crematoria or crematoriums
encomium plural encomiums or encomia
momentum plural momenta or momentums
stadium plural stadia in the context of ancient Rome; otherwise, stadiums
maximum plural maximums or maxima
memorandum plural memorandums or memoranda

When in doubt, look up the plural of Latinate -um words in a dictionary that targets your standard dialect of English. When a choice is offered, consider the context in which the word is to be used.

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9 Responses to “Stadia and Aquaria”

  • Yorick

    When I was studying my typing exams back in the late 70’s to the UK RSA (Royal Society of Arts) exams I was taught both closed punctuation (e.g.) and open punctuation (eg) with the former considered more of an older style. In everyday life in the UK I have never come across the “ia” style plural endings for words like stadium although would instantly understand it if I ran across it. Oh and yes, we love playfully provoking a rise out of Americans although this site continues to give me an interesting insight into the derivations of each language. A joy to read.

  • NickyT

    A quick search of online definitions of “datum” in American usage list it consistently as the singular form of “data.” In my experience, when “data” is used as a singular, it is often qualified as “piece of data” or “data point.” In American English, the use of “a data” clearly sounds wrong.

  • thebluebird11

    Wow, Maeve, you packed a lot of info into this post today!
    -Maybe it’s just me, but if I were just speaking (and not giving too much thought), I would say aquaria and stadia. If I were on “speech delay,” I might say aquariums and stadiums. I remember writing to a good friend of mine (a doctor) a few years back, and I mentioned how my corneae were tortured by people who couldn’t spell or something. He was so surprised that anyone would know, or use, the correct plural. When I played a game of WWF (Words With Friends) yesterday, I made the word SANCTUMS, and it accepted it. I should not be surprised; that game accepts a lot of things that are not words, and I know because I have looked them up and not found them.
    -I cannot BELIEVE that addenda, memoranda and referenda are incorrect! For real??
    -I am all for cleaning things up and avoiding clutter, so eg, ie and etc are fine with me. My spellchecker isn’t so liberal. It seems that most of the time, these abbreviations are followed by some form of punctuation (a comma after eg or ie, and a period after etc), so it is pretty clear that they are what they are. I also like Mr, Mrs, Ave (short for Avenue), etc.
    -People in the IT (I.T.) field do use the word datum. People who refer to “data” with singular verbs (“The data is clear”) really injure my corneae.
    -As long as we are speaking of this singular-vs-plural thing, In the medical field we have the term “adnexa,” which is a collective noun and refers to several organs (the female ovaries, tubes, ligaments). Doctors always say things like “The right adnexa was normal.” As transcriptionists, we have been taught to correct it to “The right adnexa were normal.” However, after your post about collective nouns, I am not so sure this needs to be corrected, a la “The staff was upset.” What is your opinion?
    -Don’t we have alumnae (multiple female alumna)?
    -Except for the Toyota, I don’t think I’d ever say Maxima!

  • Sandra

    Hello Maeve,
    Greetings from Australia where we, too, are regularly identified as being ‘not-quite-right’ in our grasp of English and its usage.

    Your thorough examination of conventions filled me with delight as it simply confirms that wherever it is spoken, English continues to evolve, adapt and change. That is cause for celebration!

    Best wishes,
    Sandra

  • thebluebird11

    Sorry…one more thing…calvaria. That is the singular form. People make a “back-formation” and say calvarium…I have looked this up and from what I’ve seen, there is no such word as calvarium. So if it is one calvaria, can I assume many calvariae? I am not the Latin/Greek maven.

  • venqax

    The irony is at least hip deep to accuse someone of “changing” the English language by using English instead of Latin. Singular -iums change to plural -ias in English– seriously? Or is there some unknown rule that randomly chosen words adopted into English still maintain their foreign characteristics forever, while most do not ? When any word has been adopted into the language for normal, everyday use, it should get naturalized and anglicized. That, after all, is what adoption means. And that goes for pronunciation as well— which is an even bigger source of irritation, especially in the US.

    Scientific terms, like any jargon, can be treated as the relevant clique decides. That’s what jargon is. But leave formulae, and cacti, and stadia to mathematicians, botanists, and classicists of whatever sort. Formulas, cactuses, and stadiums are unpretentious and what’s the word…English. Some words, granted, are more similar to terms-of-art whenever they are used, like common medical or scientific terms, so in those cases vertabrae, matrices, referenda, do seem more appropriate or at least not pretentious. It is not that aquaria or stadia are wrong in English, just donnish and– unless you really do speak Latin or ancient Greek– treacherous.

    And, while we’re here, why do so many Britishers who get upset with language usage assume that America is the source of their itching? As pointed out by others, the situation complained about here has no correlation to American vs. British standards. A more obvious question, really, is why do the British keep changing the language— erasing the wine/whine distinction, dropping gotten as the proper past participle of to get, etc.

  • RichardW

    Speaking as a Brit, and for no real reason I’m aware of, I would tend to use -a plurals when speaking of a non-specific genre, eg, “The problem with modern football stadia…” but -um plurals when referring to a specific quantity or set of things eg, “The two Manchester stadiums . . . ”

    Oh, and venqaxon, might I politely suggest Briton in place of Britisher?

  • venqax

    You know, Richard W, that raises and interesting point. Why Briton? The reason I ask is that the Britons were a specific Celtic people who lived in Roman-era Britain. Britisher, which I realize is an old term, refers to anyone from Britain, whether they might have any connection to the Britons or not. So since Briton means 2 things depending on context, and Britisher means only 1, unless I am talking about Boudica or Arthur Britisher seems better than Briton when referring to modern citizens of the island. For the same reason I wouldn’t call French people in 2015 Gauls. I just can’t see calling Naomi Campbell or Seal “Britons”.

  • AnWulf

    @NickyT … True enuff that data is not noted as a singular in AmEng. However, when noted as an adj it can be made singular … a data point rather them a datum point.

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