The Vicissitudes of the Latin Plural in English

By Maeve Maddox

A recent forum question asks about the word data.

The dictionary says the word data can be treated as a singular. But strictly speaking the word is a plural. How does such a thing happen in language? You wouldn’t say, “the cars is fast”. How does a plural gain acceptance as a singular?

The answer is,

A plural gains acceptance as a singular because language is always changing to suit the comfort of the people who speak it.

In the case of data, the singular form datum has been rejected by most English speakers as not sounding right. Hence “data is” and “data are.”

When the study of Latin was standard in the curriculum of English- speaking children, no one thought twice about using datum as the singular form of data. Now that Latin is a rarity in American education, datum sounds foreign and has been abandoned in general usage.

The distinctions between Latin singulars and plurals is still observed for some English words in some contexts–scientific or academic–but for the most part, either the singular or the plural Latin form, depending upon which sounds “less English,” tends to be dropped.

Here are some words that started out with Latin singular and plural forms. In some cases both survive. In others, the plural has been anglicized or taken over as the singular.

alumna/alumnae; alumnus/alumni
Literally “foster daughter” and “foster son,” these words refer in American usage to graduates of an educational institution. Most universities tend to use the masculine forms only. Alumnus is still in use as a singular, but I have heard people use alumni as if it could be either singular or plural.

datum/data In common usage the plural, data, has become accepted as either singular or plural.

medium/media The parts of this pair have taken on different meanings. The plural, media, has come to mean methods of communication such as newspapers, television, radio, and film. Medium can mean the material used by an artist to produce an artistic creation. It can also mean any method for accomplishing something.

Ex. As a reporter, he’s a member of the media.
Which of these mediums do you prefer, watercolor or oil?
By means of what medium do you expect to accomplish this?

And yes, another kind of medium is a person through whom spirits speak.

appendix/appendices The Latin plural is still in use, but one also hears appendixes.

formula/formulae The Latin plural persists in scientific contexts, but one often hears formulas.

encyclopedia/encyclopediae The English plural encyclopedias is more common than the Latin.

index/indices The Latin plural is used in academic contexts, but one commonly hears indexes.

axis/axes I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “axises.” It’s not a word that commonly comes up in conversation.

crisis/crises I have heard “crisises” but in this case the Latin plural crises [cry seez] is easier to say and will probably persist.

criterion/criteria Here is a pair that persists in both the Latin singular and plural. One judges the worth of a book according to a set of criteria. One criterion might be style. Another criterion might be accuracy.

phenomenon/phenomena A tornado is a phenomenon of Nature. Other phenomena are earthquakes, thunderstorms, and floods. Both the singular and plural forms of this word are alive and well.

agendum/agenda Here the singular form has dropped out and people speak of both an agenda and agendas.

memorandum/memoranda Both of these forms are still in use, but I’ve heard memorandums.

cactus/cacti Some people still use the Latin plural, but one hears cactuses.

fungus/fungi[fun dzhai] Both forms are in use, but one also hears funguses.

hippopotamus/hippopotami Since most people now call them hippos, the Latin plural is not much in use. The plural hippopotamuses is a mouthful and when used tends to sound humorous.

Some other unusual singular/plural pairs that may seem to derive from Latin come instead from Greek. They are sometimes mistakenly given invented Latin plurals.

octopus You may hear someone use the plural octopi for this word, but the Latin plural would be octopodes. The English plural is octopuses.

stigma – Here’s a word whose original plural has taken on a different meaning with the result that stigmata and stigmas mean different things.

A stigma is some kind of negative mark. It is usually used figuratively. Ex. In the 1950s a woman was ruined by the stigma of an illegitimate child. The politician was never able to overcome the stigma of having embezzled state funds. The plural of stigma is stigmas.

The original plural stigmata refers to the crucifixion wounds of Christ and to the marks of these wounds as they have appeared on the bodies of certain Christian mystics. Ex. Mystics known to have experienced stigmata include Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena.

dogma – The original plural was dogmata, but dogmas has prevailed. The older plural, however, gives us the adjective dogmatic.

There are several other Latin and Greek singular/plural pairs still in use, but these are probably the most common.

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30 Responses to “The Vicissitudes of the Latin Plural in English”

  • Tarah Sweeney

    Very interesting article.

  • Brad K.

    I find a blurring with data. Like herd, data implies a group, a distinct collection of facts. I use cow or goat for singular, herd for the group. And I use ‘fact’ as an imprecise and almost incorrect singular form to refer to a single member of a body of data.

  • –Deb

    Great post. I know, well, pretty much nothing about Latin, so the plurals of Latin-version words is always tricky for me.

    Although, for the record, I almost always think of “data” as being singular, though I do know that it began as plural….

  • b2j2

    “Datum plane” is used when referring to an established (or assumed) reference plane from which measurements (perhaps three dimensional) are taken. I have never seen a reference to a “data plane.”

  • Maeve

    b2j2,

    ——I have never seen a reference to a “data plane.”—–

    Nor are you likely to. “Datum plane” is a good example of the kind of specialized context in which the older form tends to remain fixed.

  • Bree

    Currently I’m working on a CSR brochure for a big telcomms company in Ireland. They’ve been fairly considerate when it comes to amends on copy except for one sticking point: fora.

    Every year the company holds more than one forum, and while common modern English usage refers to these as forums, one of the client team keeps replacing my edit and finally left a comment in the draft that fora is the correct Latin term for this.

    Perhaps I’m a bit egotistical in arguing the change (lord knows if I wasn’t with an agency it would be a different story), but the term fora rings wrong with me, especially considering there’s common English usages of other words i.e. data, criteria etc.

    I’m tempted to leave a snobbish comment in the next draft… but is it unfounded?

  • Maeve

    Bree,
    We all have our linguistic hobby horses that we feel a need to defend to the death.

    Evidently that particular team member feels that way about fora. Since it’s his brochure and you’re the hired help, I’d say let it ride.

  • Maeve

    Nesta Johnson wrote:
    Hello, I enjoyed the list of Latin singular/plural pairs. I was particularly
    pleased to finally learn the “real” plural for octopus.

    I was wondering whether “octopodes” was pronounced to rhyme with “toads” or “roadies.” Also, is the second “o” long or short?

    I wouldn’t recommend actually using “octopodes” as the plural of “octopus.”

    Personally, I go for the “roadies” rhyme, but from what I can tell from Webster’s Unabridged, the first American pronunciation is something like

    [ahk TAHP uh deez] with the stress on the second syllable and a short O sound

    with a secondary pronunciation of

    [ahk TO puh deez] with the stress on the second syllable and a long O.

  • Benjamin Baxter

    According to the media — specifically, the AP Stylebook — the singular of “media” is still “medium.”

  • Maeve

    I didn’t mean to imply that “media” as the plural of “medium” is dead. Certainly artists still speak of “mixed media.” Nevertheless, the plural “mediums” is creeping in.

  • Thomas

    “By means of what medium”

    Strunk & White would say: “How” 😉

  • Maeve

    No doubt!

  • Renee

    This has nothing to do with Latin, but it does have to do with plurals. I teach English at a junior college in Belize, Central America. English is our official language, but nearly no one speaks it as a first language. I have two items that trouble me which are nouns that have no plural form like furniture, equipment, research. Does anyone have a list of these words that I could share with my students? The other is when is it appropriate to use “persons” instead of “people”? I personally hate “persons”. When I was growing up that was a grammar error. To me “persons” sounds very cold and technical (maybe for government, legal documents and reports). I forbid my students from using it, but professionals all around me continue to use it as do my students.

  • Charlie Rapple

    Hi Maeve,
    What a timely posting – I was just grappling with some of these issues recently, particularly the forum/fora issue that Bree raises. Could you weigh in on that one? I did some searching and, having previously (like Bree’s client) understood fora to be the correct plural for forum, I ended up wondering if I had been wrong all this time. What’s your judgement on the forum/fora issue?

  • William

    Would someone please put forth the Latin masculine/feminine suffixes, clearly, for me. I have forgotten and confused these in my mind. It has been called upon me at work for the first time in decades, and I can no longer find proper Latin grammar books on my shelf. A proper Latin grammar book available today would interest me as well.

  • Peter

    Would someone please put forth the Latin masculine/feminine suffixes, clearly, for me.

    It’s not trivial, because there are five classes of nouns in Latin that work differently. In the simple cases:
    * 1st declension nouns end in “a” in the (nominative) singular and “ae” in the plural (e.g., formula) – they’re mostly feminine, but there are not actually “masculine/feminine suffixes” – there are masculine words that follow this pattern.
    * 2nd declension end in “us” (mostly masculine) in the singular and “i” in the plural (cactus, fungus), but neuters end in “um” in the singular and “a” in the plural (medium, forum); there are also 2nd declension words ending in “er” which becomes either “ri” or “eri” in the plural, depending on the word.
    * 4th declension ends in “us” in singular and plural (with a short u in the singular and a long u in the plural: the Latin plural of “apparatus” is “apparatus”), except neuters end in “u” in the singular and “ua” in the plural.
    * 5th declension end in “es” (long e) in both singular and plural.
    I skipped the 3rd declension – the plural of “homo” is “homines”, etc.; plurals end in “es” (long e), but the connection is not so simple. Also, words coming from Greek often decline like the Greek (where is where your -on/-a (criterion, criteria) and -a/-ata (stigma, stigmata) and so on come from)

    HTH

  • Maeve

    Somehow I managed to miss seeing comments 13-15 when they were posted.

    Thanks to Peter for the list of Latin plurals.

    In writing these general articles for DWT, it is difficult to know how much specialized information to include. Peter’s email is not only a useful addition for readers who want to know more about Latin plurals, it alerted me to the other comments.

    To William,
    The Latin text on my shelf is Wheelock’s Latin by Frederic M. Wheelock; edited by R. A. LaFleur, 5th edition, IBSN 0-06-467179-8. You can probably find a used copy on line.

    Charlie,
    I think that fora is an elegant word and I know what it means when I come across it. Its use is still justified in some contexts, but, while I can’t say I’d never use it, in my own writing I would probably opt for forums.

    Renee,
    I agree with you about persons sounding cold. It’s a usage I avoid. You may find the following DWT articles of interest:

    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/folks-versus-people/
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/people-versus-persons/

    As for nouns that have no plural, I may write a post on the subject.

    Meanwhile, here are a couple of articles that deal with noun plurals:
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/english-grammar-101-plural-form-of-nouns/

  • José

    Hi,

    Recently on my blog I used the word “mediums”, however I was thinking about changing it, since the plural is media.
    I still don’t know if I will do it.
    Now, you mention media as the plural of the methods of communications. Well, those are the vehicles used to transmist information. Such as a medium in painting is a vehicle to bond pigment or whatever.
    So, although applied to different areas, the medium has the same meaning i.e. a vehicle.
    Therefore shouldn’t the plural be always referred in the same manner ?
    Media, in my opinion.

    Kind regards,

    José

  • Billy Bob

    Hippopotamus is made up of two Greek words hippos = horse and potamus = river. It is not Latin. The correct plural is hippopotamuses.

  • Maeve

    Thanks, Billy Bob.
    Hippo is from the Greek, and could have gone with the Greek entries below it. However, the word came into English by way of Latin. Here’s the note in Webster’s Unabridged:

    Etymology: Latin, from Greek, from hippo- hipp- + potamos river…
    1 plural hippopotamus·es \-sz\ or hippopota·mi

  • Santanu Dutta

    Can any body please correct the following sentences?
    1.Is either of your brothers married ?
    2. I am taller than her.
    3. He could come in time.
    4. Each of us loves our home.
    5 She did like she was told.
    6. I have arrived yesterday.
    7. My brother goes to the school everyday
    8.What is the cost of this pen ?

  • stuckmann

    1. Is some of your brothers married ?
    2. I am more tall than her.
    3. He could come at time.
    4. Both loves our home.
    5 She did like she was tell.
    6. I have arrive yesterday.
    7. My brother goes at the school everyday
    8. What is the cost pen ?

  • PreciseEdit

    This is really off topic (and late), but because I enjoy language, I’ll take a crack at the corrections. (Also because Stuckman is so far off, which, I hope, is a joke.)

    1.Is either of your brothers married ?
    –correct as is

    2. I am taller than her.
    –I am taller than she. [As in “I am taller than she is.”]

    3. He could come in time.
    –odd, but correct as is

    4. Each of us loves our home.
    –Each of us loves his or her home.
    –We all love our homes.

    5 She did like she was told.
    –She did as she was told .

    6. I have arrived yesterday.
    –I arrived yesterday.

    7. My brother goes to the school everyday
    –My brother goes to the school every day.

    8.What is the cost of this pen ?
    –Correct as is, but why are you still using a pen?

  • Paul B. Gallagher

    Correction on item 4:
    This sentence is fine as is if we share a home:
    – Each of us loves our (common) home.

    It would not be OK to say
    – Each of us loves our (various) homes
    unless we all love each others’ homes. Even so, it would be more natural in this case to say
    – All of us love our (various) homes.

    On item 8, the sentence is fine but not typical of how English speakers actually talk. It would be much more natural to ask
    – How much does this pen cost?

    Item 3 appears to mean that he could come eventually. If the intent is to say that he could come at the appointed time, then it should be revised to read
    – He could come on time.
    It’s still a bit unusual to use the hesitant “could.”

  • Svvimmer

    How about “Campus”? The plural is “Campi”. But everybody says “Campuses”. Horror! Why? it must be horroris causam….

  • Christopher Burd

    “Each of us loves his or her home.”

    This is so awkward, it makes me want to go back to “Each of us loves his home”, which is pretty much what you would say in most European languages.

    BTW, other than the supposed sexism, what is the difference between

    “Each of us loves his home”

    and

    “All of us love our homes”?

    There’s a subtle difference, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s something to do with seeing people as collectives or as individuals.

    Think of Lord Nelson’s order at the battle of Trafalgar:

    “England expects every man to do his duty”

    versus the alternative:

    “England expects all men to do their duties”

    To me, it seems obvious that the original was better for Nelson’s purposes. That’s because it addresses each man as an individual, while the alternative version addresses the men collectively, as a mass. The style (and therefore intensity) of engagement is different.

    Great blog, BTW; I’ll put it on my list.

  • Christopher Burd

    A funny thing about alumnus/alumni, alumna/alumnae is the pronunciation. Traditionally, in English, alumni was alum-NYE and alumnae was alum-NEE. Nowadays, a lot of people try to say something closer to what the ancient Romans would have said (as if they care!): alum-NEE and alum-NYE – the very opposite.

  • Fiona Hanington

    “Octopodes”! This is new to me.

  • P.J.

    1. Are either of your brothers married?
    2. Acceptable-her can follow the “to be” verb.
    3. He might arrive on time. (Sounds better anyway.)
    4. Acceptable depending on context.
    5. She did as she was told.
    6. I arrived yesterday.
    7. Acceptable depending on your brother’s status. A student goes to school. A volunteer goes to the school.
    8. What is the price of this pen?

  • Gari.

    What a great site, just discovered it, and bookmarked it immediately.

    Regarding singular/plural forms. What about Stadium, Auditorium, Concerto, which are now almost always pluralised by adding ‘s’ (Except perhaps on BBC Radio Three). And there is Candelarbra which never seems to be used in its singular form.
    G.

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