A Primer from Professor Victoria Pagan
In English, we slap an “s” on nearly any noun and boom, there’s more than one. But what about those pesky nouns derived from Latin or Greek? “Alumni,” I’m looking at you. One alumnus is second declension masculine, so his plural is “alumni.” One alumna is first declension feminine, and her plural is “alumnae.” If, however, we are referring to the entirety of the Gator Nation, then we use the masculine plural, “alumni.” This is used so commonly, that people tend to think that any Latin — or Greek — noun must form its plural by changing the suffix to “-i.”
Not so. That suffix is reserved for the second declension masculines. English uses a fair number of second declension neuter nouns. Everyone knows that science provides us with data, which almost always comes to us in the plural, since one piece of evidence, a datum, is unreliable. But did you know that you vote on a referendum because it’s only one item on the ballot? If your local politicians are especially busy, they might propose several referenda, because they have lots of items on their agenda, the many things that need to be done.
Nouns of Greek origin follow a different pattern altogether. For example, a doctoral candidate manages to write one thesis, but we professors grade all the theses. And while many superheroes have only one nemesis, a group of super-villains would be a gathering of nemeses.
If you think you are confused, try being an octopus. Not only must he keep track of four pairs of shoes, he’s also got to contend with three different plurals. Properly speaking, his friends are octopodes, a Greek plural. But because the octopus looks like an Latin noun, many alumni assume that octopi is the correct plural. To avoid the confusion, a good American will do what is simple and expedient, and just add an “s.” So don’t be offended if you see a bunch of octopuses at the zoo. They are just trying to get along.
For more information about Latin and Greek languages and etymologies, visit your UF Classics Department, or check us out online.