Thursday, October 13, 2011

Plurals of Latin words we use

I've been thinking a lot lately about the plural forms of Latin words that we commonly use in English. Part of this probably comes from my regular job where I need to use the word "alumni" a lot. In case you weren't aware, alumni is the plural of alumnus, which is a male who is a graduate of a school, usually a college or university. By contrast, an alumna is the female graduate. The plural for that category is alumnae, but if you have a mixed gender group, then they are all alumni. A lot of people don't know that, and a lot of people just don't care. And they probably don't need a reason to, for the most part! But it gets me thinking about these other words that we use, like criteria, bacteria, and data, the singular of which are criterion, bacterium, and datum.

Most of the time, I think people use and know the difference between criteria and criterion, but bacteria and data are more problematic. The problem is that people don't know how to conjugate verbs with them in relation to number agreement. I always hear or read people making statements like "the data is" or "what does the data say?" What people should stay is "the data are" and "what do the data say?" The thing is that I think, it has become so common because there's pretty much never a time when we use the singular s that people have started to use data as though it were the singular. I can't think of a time when someone said, "Hey, I need that datum to add it to the rest" or some such thing. I suppose it makes sense grammatically and even logically, but it sounds funny.

Likewise, I realised that even I use incorrect number agreement with bacteria. I might ask, "What type of bacteria is it?" But when I think of an analogous phrase, like "What kind of puppies is it?" when referring to the breed, that wouldn't make any sense, so I guess I should technically ask what kind of bacteria they are. Or maybe I should just reword the sentence completely or be more precise about breeds of puppies rather than types!

There are definitely some that we don't tend to use much anymore, like foci as the plural for focus and loci for locus. People also tend to say curriculums a lot now, too, instead of curricula, although it's funny that my auto spell-check on my browser doesn't recognise either foci or curriculums as valid words. In any case, these are just my thoughts of late, for better or for worse...

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