thinking about plurals

…in particular plurals for words ending in –us.

The Los Angeles Times recently had a fascinating Op-Ed piece about the octopus. I commend it to you on its own merits. But its use of the word octopuses for the plural got me wondering if that was standard usage.

The online American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) 5th edition and the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary (M-W) both list octopuses first and octopi second for the plural. But the Oxford Dictionaries Online lists only octopuses and has this note:

quoteThe standard plural in English of octopus is octopuses. However, the word octopus comes from Greek, and the Greek plural form octopodes is still occasionally used. The plural form octopi is mistakenly formed according to rules for Latin plurals, and is therefore incorrect.

I find it difficult to disagree with that statement.

The idea that English should follow Latin grammar came from a couple of British grammarians a few centuries ago. The practice became widely accepted, but made no sense because English is a Germanic language, not Latinate. For example, the rule about not splitting an infinitive came from the fact that in Latin the infinitive is a single word and not two words. So when you get past the nonsense about English having to follow Latin grammar, “to boldly go” is perfectly fine. But that is a topic for another blog entry.

Back to our plurals. What is the accepted plural for nouns with masculine Latin roots? For fungus, AHD, Oxford, and M-W all list fungi first then funguses. For virus, AHD and M-W list viruses, but Oxford doesn’t list a plural. And for hippopotamus, all three list hippopotamuses first and then hippopotami.

I think in general the trend is to move away from the Latin form to the Anglicized form. That is probably a Good Thing.

The best one can do, I suppose, is to select a dictionary you trust and be consistent.


2 Comments on “thinking about plurals”

  1. Alison Morgan says:

    If you are being an octopedantic, can we look it up in the octopaedia…? harrumph.


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