Saturday, November 1, 2014

Grammar Nazi Comment on Greco-Latin Words

NOTE: These nine essays were originally published in my now defunct blog "Random Notes". As they were all cited in "Revisionism Strikes Again", I have decided to reproduce them, both to make them accessible for those reading that essay, and as a preliminary step toward reprinting most or all of the articles no long available at "Random Notes".

I haven't published a grammar or spelling nazi post in some time ("Close But No Cigar"), so I figure it is about time to gripe about something. And fortunately, while watching a cartoon this morning with my son, I was handed a topic. The cartoon, among other very silly topics, was making fun of those who argue whether the plural of octopus is octopuses or octopi. This reminded me of three related topics concerning the plural versions of Greco-Latin words

The first is the one with which I began, the word "octopus". Many, seeing the "-us" imagine it is a second declension Latin word and make up the plural "octopi". Unfortunately, the word is Greek, not Latin in origin. It's closes Latin cognate is "pes, pedes" the word for "foot". Returning to the original Greek origin, we find the plural should be "octopodes". Neither the simplistic "octopuses" nor the faux-intellectual "octopi" is correct. On the other hand, if you must choose between those two, then "octopuses" is the clear winner, as it is the English plural ending attached to the import word, while "octopi" is the incorrect Latin plural ending appended to a Greek import word, which makes no sense.

The second word is one which has started more on-line debates than any other. And that is "virus". Now, many geeks will point you to this essay  and claim it is definitive, but in truth it presents simply one opinion. And an opinion from someone with no credentials as a classicist, as far as I can tell. Fame among the geek crowd does not translate into infallibility, and so I treat this opinion with skepticism. (Nor do the OED references convince me. The OED, despite its popularity, has been wrong in the past. it is useful, but not definitive. And, in addition, it largely concerns itself with tracking historical suages, not in prescribing current use, which means many entries in the OED are now archaic or unacceptable, and thus citing the OED as a source of contemporary usage could end up leading one into some pretty peculiar choices.)

In truth, it seems even those few Latin writers who used the word "virus" were unclear on its precise usage, whether it was second or fourth declension, whether it was singular or a collective noun and so on. It is akin to the problems we experience when a new word is coined, or imported from a foreign language and there has not yet emerged an established plural. Similarly, it seems that "virus" was used so infrequently that no one was certain of its nature and they made it up as they went along, but it remained so infrequently used that no one ever established a standard usage for it.

And so, despite the claims by various "experts" I would argue there is no "correct" plural for virus, as the classical sources are unclear. However, since there is so much confusion and uncertainty, I would likely stick with "viruses", as it is the easiest version to justify with citations, as well as the usage most likely to be understood by any audience. I would not go so far as to argue it is the only correct usage,, but given its long usage and the lack of a clear plural in the source language, I would choose "viruses" until someone finds a source establishing clearly and unequivocally what the plural of "virus" is in Latin.

Finally, there is the word "forum." I have no objection to the usage "forums", as it has a lengthy history of usage in English. I find it sounds strange, as I want to write "fora", but it has been used long enough, I do not feel it to be a mistake any longer. (Unlike "indexes", which forcibly replaced "indices" only very recently due to stock brokers' and computer programmers' inability to recall the correct plural.) However, I would ask that I not be treated like a pariah for using the correct plural of "fora". It seems recently that anyone who actually knows the proper plural forms of Latin and Greek import words is treated as a fool by the aggressively ignorant who insist that one can only use "-(e)s", even when a word has a long history of using the correct Latinate endings. (Oddly, some of these same people want to create sill faux-German plurals, such as "boxen" or "vaxen" used by some computer geeks, while forcibly refusing to use proper Latin plurals such as "indices".)

There is one related issue which annoys me, and that is the politically correct exclusion of sex specific words. Some of these may have been simply historical trends. For example, "comedienne" seemed to be disappearing long before the feminists started trying to expunge all signs of sex from the language ("A Question About Language"), but the word "actress" was not. Yet I have begun to see many on-line sources pointedly referring to female actors as "actors" even in contexts where "actress" would be more natural. In fact, I have even seen the hideous usage "female actor", where a simple "actress" would work.

But I griped about that before, so I will leave it for now. Those interested in my thoughts can follow the link to my old essay. So let us draw this to a close.

To make simple what took me far too many words. In the case of "octopus", "octopi" is clearly wrong, though rather frequently used. "Octopuses" is acceptable, as adding the English "-(e)s" plural to import words has a long history. But if you want to use the correct plural for the import word, "octopodes" is the best choice. In the case of "virus", I would prefer "viruses" simply because it avoids any confusion and can be supported easily through citations. On the other hand, I do not think "viri" is clearly wrong, despite some claims, though it is likely to raise eyebrows when used outside of certain technical or academic contexts where this debate is well know. For convenience and clarity, I would prefer "viruses", but I can't go so far as to declare "viri" wrong. Finally, I accept both "forums" and "fora" as both have been in use for a very long time, only asking that "fora" not be treated as an error when it is used.

Spell Check Watch: I haven't griped about firefox's spell check in a long time ("The Spelling Nazi Begs to Differ"), but in this case there is a very real complaint. Apparently, Firefox doesn't care what the plural of "octopus" is. It accepts both wrong answers ("octopuses" and "octopi") while rejecting the correct one ("octopodes"). Interesting how that works. And yet it asserts itself in your browser as a definitive spell check. (To be fair, Firefox does allow "fora", though it rejects "indices".)


There is a technical point here I need to clarify. In the case of "viruses" and "viri" I argue that for clarity I would choose "viruses", but I also say I cannot declare "viri" wrong. For those familiar with my arguments about the purpose of grammar, that may sound strange. After all, I argue grammar and spelling exist to improve clarity, so how could the less clear version still be right?

The problem here is that, while rules of grammar and spelling exist to improve clarity, at times they may not do so in all contexts. For example, "wind" is the correct spelling of two words, but the fact that they share a spelling increases confusion. Still, they remain the correct spellings. And that is the case here as well. I would argue that, were "virus" be clearly proved to be a second declension Latin noun with a regular plural, then "viri" would be acceptable under our normal rules for Latin import words. However, at the present, thanks to the confusion about the Latin roots, I would think "viruses" would be both correct and more clear.

Actually, this may be an interesting future topic, the fact that rules which improve clarity in most contexts can, in some other contexts, lead to less clarity. In fact, that may be one of the better ways to illustrate the failings of pragmatic solutions. But that will have to wait. Right now I just wanted to show that there can be situations where "clear" and "right" may not always go hand in hand.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/06/15.   

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