St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

The Problem with Plurals

or: Quis Castigabit Ipsos Castigatores?

Kermit gets korrected: 'The lovers, the dreamers and I.'

Ruining a perfectly good song: “The lovers, the dreamers and I.”

If you’re like most of us, you’ve said something perfectly normal only to have some creep pounce on your grammar. “Actually, it’s ‘I can’t get any satisfaction.’ I think you’ll find it’s ‘The lovers, the dreamers and I.’”1 If you’re an incorrigible bastard like me, you’ve occasionally been that creep (although, I maintain, in the politest possible way). But what happens when even the pedants are wrong? Because even the snarkiest censors will occasionally be wrong themselves, especially when it comes to that glorious goldmine of the English language: plural nouns. Everyone — and I mean everyone — screws these up from time to time. But the problem isn’t with the English language itself. The problem lies squarely with foreign loan words and the people who insist on using them correctly.

Plurals in English appear straightforward and get progressively stupider the more you think about them. On the surface they are gloriously simple: you add -s to the end of most words and, if -s would be too clunky, you add -es. Thus books, witches, etc. The only real exceptions to the -s rule are some irregular words like children and teeth2 that just make no sense. You kind of have to love them for what they are.

The gerund attacks some peaceful pronouns

“The gerund attacks some peaceful pronouns”3

The big problem, and I mean the really big problem, is when we come to words that are foreign loans. I don’t mean words that simply derive from foreign languages, I mean words that are, without changes, foreign words that have been co-opted into English. Words like medium/media, cactus/cacti or beau/beaux. The consensus is that foreign words should retain their original plurals and that anyone who gets these wrong (cactuses) should be castigated and pilloried until they get a goddamn education.

And when I asked him for the supine stem of confiteor the fool didn't know.

“And when I asked him for the supine stem of confiteor the fool didn’t know.”4

The tip of this iceberg is that the best of us are frequently wrong about what the original plurals are. For example we assume that Latin and Greek words in -us will naturally have plurals in -i, like cactus/cacti and octopus/*octopi. I happen to know a little Latin and Greek, so I can tell you that the plural of octopus was never and can never be *octopi5. That form assumes that the word is of the second declension when it is actually from the third. The correct plural of octopus would be octopodes. Likewise the plural of platypus is platypodes. These words make me giggle uncontrollably, so I may as well add that the plural of phoenix is phoenikes. More than one Tyrannosaurus Rex? Those would be Tyrannosauri Reges. And these are just the languages I’m familiar with. God only knows the original plural of avatar, which is a Sanskrit word; voodoo, which is African; or schmuck, which is Yiddish.

The argument made over these is that it’s impossible to know Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew and all the other languages we borrow from6. Without knowing every language in the world, we may as well adopt foreign words into English and give them an English plural. I’m not sure this argument is valid because you don’t actually have to know all those foreign languages. All you have to memorize are a few exceptions to the spelling of certain words, and god knows there are enough of those already. A few more won’t hurt.

The far more serious problem with original plurals is that they break the English language in unpredictable ways. One example is the word bus — a simple enough word on the face of it, but actually a shortening of the Latin omnibus (“for everyone”, hence a means of public transport). The word omnibus is already plural, so by definition it cannot be pluralized again7. We can never have more than one bus! Which is plainly absurd. When I wait 20 minutes for a bus and suddenly four of them turn up at once, what am I shouting at like a saliva-slick bag-lady? Buses, of course. We can’t use the original plural, it has to be Anglicized and given the normal English -es ending. The same goes for ignoramus. We falsely assume ignoramus is a Latin noun that can be pluralized to *ignorami. I was corrected on this very issue8. ignoramus is a Latin verb meaning “we do not know”, an answer that used to be given by juries when there wasn’t enough evidence to give a proper verdict. For a start it is a verb, so it can’t form a plural the same way nouns do. Secondly, it is already plural. We can never have more than one ignoramus and, sakes alive, that can’t be right.9

When words break like this, they limit the range of our expression. The only alternative to accepting one and only one bus is to accept English plurals in some cases. And hell, why not do it for all cases?10 We are all capable of fluffing a plural form from time to time, so why not cut everyone else some slack. That doesn’t mean original plurals aren’t still fun to use — you can infallibly spot an anal-retentive linguaphile by the way they pluralize forum to fora. But unless you’re showing off a bit of linguistic legerdemain, plurals in -s should be the norm.

Notes


  1. Apologies to the Stones and the Muppets. The only song you could potentially ruin worse would be “We came on the Sloop John Y / My grandfather and I”. 

  2. tooth/teeth arguably falls into a subcategory of nouns that have a double o in the middle that transforms to a double e in the plural (foot/feet, goose/geese, etc.) However even this doesn’t make much sense. Wouldn’t you expect shoop/sheep? “One shoop two sheep, red shoop blue sheep…” 

  3. Willans & Searle, How To Be Topp

  4. Willans & Searle’s sublime Down With Skool!

  5. In linguistic notation, an asterisk in front of a word signifies an impossible or ungrammatical form. 

  6. Well not wholly impossible — John Sheldon knows these and more, but has yet to appoint his representative here on Earth. I owe Mr Sheldon a debt of gratitude for first pointing out to me the exotic plural of octopus

  7. Although the OED attests omnibi as a “humorously confected ‘plural’ of classical Latin omnibus“. 

  8. By the incomparable Mr Jets Connor. The discovery of ignoramus spurred me to write this post. 

  9. It’s worth a short diversion at this point to mention the word syllabus. I have previously argued the plural should be syllabi, but the etymology of the word is far from clear. It’s supposedly classical Latin, originating from a hypothetical Greek σύλλαβος, but the entire basis for this word is a misreading of Cicero. The accepted reading now is sittybas or Greek σιττύβας, thus revising the word syllabus out of existence. Which isn’t to say syllabus isn’t a perfectly good word in English and modern Latin — it is just a recent artifact that makes it harder to argue for a plural based on a classical etymology. 

  10. I know it’s dangerous thinking, but a little bit of consistency won’t hurt the English language. 

Bibliography

  • Butler, Noble. A Practical Grammar of the English Language. Louisville: John P. Morton, 1846. Print.
  • Department of Classics, Tufts University. Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University, 2011. Web. 2 January 2012 <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/>
  • OED Online. Oxford University Press, 2012. Web. 2 January 2012 <http://www.oed.com/>

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