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May 14th, 2008

Latin plurals and the apostrophe quiz winner

by Barbara Wallraff

Tom Discenna, of Sterling Heights, Mich., writes: “Since my wife is an alumni director, we are aware of the plural of ‘alumnus.’ However, I often see the plural of ‘campus’ in the newspaper as ‘campuses’ and the plural of ‘stadium’ as ‘stadiums’? Can you help here?”

Dear Tom: Ah, the quirks of our 
cobbled-together language! “Campus” and “stadium” came to us from Latin, just as, of course, “alumnus” did. In Latin, the plurals are “campi” and “stadia.” But this is English we’re speaking. We have censuses and circuses, premiums and maximums -- but also curricula and memoranda, nuclei and media (though the alternative forms ending in “s” are generally OK too). It can be maddening to keep straight the words that have kept their Latin plurals, the ones that definitely end in “s” and the ones that can go either way. My impression is that everyday words have acquired the “s” ending, while more unusual ones are likelier to have stayed true to their origins. But there’s no hard and fast rule.

Using Latin plurals isn’t necessarily classier than going with the ordinary ones. For instance, “campuses” is completely, exclusively standard. Saying or writing “campi” is a gaffe akin to wearing formal clothes to a backyard barbecue. “Stadia” is not actually wrong, but “stadiums” is far more usual, and no one is going to laugh at it, at least in North American English.

Even worse than stuck-up Latin plurals are false ones. Not every Latin word ending in “-us” or “-um” becomes “-i” or 
“-a” in the plural. For example, one ancient Roman octopus plus another one were -- believe it or not -- “octopodes,” because Latin borrowed the word from Greek. But for heaven’s sake, let’s not start with that! “Octopuses” will do just fine.

The answer to the quiz I published a couple of weeks ago is “PERFECT.”

Those of you who told me the answer is “WRONG” had the right idea but got it backward: I asked for the first letters of the correctly punctuated sentences, whereas those are the first letters of the incorrectly punctuated ones.

One newspaper had to cut the quiz’s first sentence to make the column fit into the allotted space. Its clued-in readers (you know who you are) thought the answer was “ERFECT” -- which is, as some of you noted, almost “PERFECT.” I considered “ERFECT” responses correct for the purposes of the contest, in which I picked a winner at random. The winner is Robert E. Brown, of Schenectady, N.Y. An autographed copy of my book “Word Court” is already on its way to you, Robert. Congrats -- and congratulations to everyone else who got a perfect score.

Anybody interested can find a copy of the quiz annotated with explanations in the top-shelf newspaper archives in the Library of my Web site, www
.wordcourt.com. By the way, if you enjoyed this quiz, you might like the Word Police exams, also in the Library (on the middle shelf). The rewards for passing them are Word Police Academy diplomas, which you can print out with your name on them -- and frame them and hang them on the wall, if you want.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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