Friday, February 12, 2016

Return of the Grammar Nazi: Faux Latin Plurals

I haven't writtena grammar Nazi post in a long time*, but something struck me today that just demanded at least a short post. That is the tendency of the overeducated to try to create faux Latin plurals for words that do not need them. Now, before I go on, I am no enemy of Latinate plurals. I still speak of indices, refusing to believe "indexes" is a word, and speak of "fora", as "forums" sounds odd to me. I know "a piece of data" is absurdly wordy, as you can just use "datum", and I also insist "media" is not singular. So I am quite comfortable with Latinate word usage. What I object to here is the use of Latinate forms for words to which they do not apply.

The best example is "viri". No, not the nominative plural (or genitive singular)  of "men", but the supposed plural of the word "virus". No debate has inspired so much useless writing, and also prompted so many non-expert "experts" to pronounce "definitive" answers with no foundation at all. According to some, virus is second declension and thus, the plural is "viri". Others argue evidence shows that it is a "collective noun" or some such beast, and thus the singular and plural are both "virus". A few more reasonable souls argue the Latin version is so rare no one knows, so we should just accept the English suffix and use "viruses". Oddly, no one has argued for fourth declension (like "senatus") and argued the plural is "virus".

The fact is, the word was a late creation, used rarely, and there just is no evidence for what form the word took. For all the supposed expertise of those making arguments, there is just not enough evidence for even the most erudite and experienced soul to make a determination. Given that, I suppose there are two positions one could take. First, the sensible argument mentioned above, just use "viruses" since we don't know what the Latin form might be. Second, just do what you like. I am not normally a fan of free form grammar, but in this case, since no one knows, and "viri" has seen a lot of use, I would not argue with accepting, in this case, what amounts to a neologism. I know this goes against my normal arguments, but in this case, where not only the Latin origin, but even what constitutes acceptable English usage is in flux, I can't really point to a definitive rule. Personally, I favor "viruses" for the reasons given, but for once I won't argue with someone following a different course.

That is not the case with "octopi". I know, I know, it ends in "-us", so it must be made plural by changing to "-i", right? Isn't that more "Latiny"? Should I not favor it?

Well, maybe. If a word is from Latin. And is second declension. Remember, not all words ending in "-us" are Latin, and even the Latin ones don't always form plurals by shifting to "-i". (As mentioned above, "senatus" is the nominative plural of "senatus".) And, unfortunately for those who love using "octopi", octopus is not a Latin word. Not even a little bit. Yes, "octo" is a Latin prefix for eight, but it is also the Greek one**, and in this case, the word happens to be a of Greek derivation***. The last syllable comes from the Greek word "pous" which has a nominative plural of "podes". Which is why, if you must use a non-English plural, then replace "octopuses" with "octopodes", as that is the closest ou can get to the proper Anglicization of the Greek.

I am sure there are others I am forgetting here, but the octopus one was troubling me recently and I just had to say something. And now, having vented my grammatical spleen, I will return to my usual topics.

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* See "Try and Listen to the Grammar Nazi", "A Brief Visit From the Grammar Nazi", "Beyond Grammar and Spelling", "The Grammar Nazi Versus George Lucas", "Ye Olde Grammar Nazi", "Grammar Nazi Comment on Greco-Latin Words", "Why Spelling Matters, One More Time", "The Irony of Lax Internet Standards", "Short Grammar Nazi Post" and "The Spelling Nazi Begs to Differ".

** Latin and Greek share many words for the same number. "octo" for example, or "deca", though modern Greek scholars insist on spelling it "deka" (as if the Greeks used Latin letters! See  the footnotes to "Misunderstanding Arbitrary Definitions", "Bad Economics Part 6", "A Thought on Iran", "For Those Who Would Sit It Out", "Inversion of Traditional Values" and "Protectionism", as well as "Grammar Nazi Comment on Greco-Latin Words"and "Brief Note".) And a few are similar, such as the Latin "septa" and Greek "hepta", or Latin "sex" and Greek "hex". But then there are some serious deviations, such as Latin "quinta-" and Greek "penta-", or Latin "Nona-" and Greek "Ennea-". So, while sometimes one can tell Greek from Latin by numeric prefix, other times it is tricky.

*** Latin for foot is "pes, pedis", so it would have been an "octopes" or "octoped", and the plural would have nothing to do with adding a "-i".  If anything, the plural would have looked more like English, with an octopes having a plural of octopedes.


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POSTSCRIPT

While finding citations for this essay, I came across my post "Stray Thoughts on Language". While not exactly on topic for this essay, it does address a related matter, and I found it interesting, so thought I would mention it here.



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