A dialogue about plurals and other horrors

In a recent blog entry I used the word ‘formulas’ as (obviously) the plural of ‘formula’.

This elicited an anguished protest from an old friend:

Subject: blogs-schmogs  
I try not to read too many of these, since my main objective these days in this terrible world is to stay calm. But when I do (read blogs I mean), I find it distressing to discover, in one sentence, formulas for formulae (and from a classicist) and prophesy for prophecy.   O tempora…

I replied:

Thanks. ‘Formulas’ was deliberate (I don’t hold with fancy Latin endings when a perfectly good English one is available — forums is fine, although admittedly I wouldn’t write phenomenons — no, not Latin, I agree). But I’ll correct prophesy…
Oh tempuses, Oh moreses, as you rightly say!

The reply:

I agree on forums but not formulas, although give it a few years and I will have to give in. My pet hate is the use of media as a singular. But there are plenty others (peninsular as a noun, for example – perpetrated by Sassenachs who can only ever pronounce the letter r by tacking it onto the end of a word where it doesn’t belong, as in Indiar and Asiar and Australiar and everywhere else – or even, the other day, peninsula as an adjective).  
And shouldn’t it be O moses?

(He’s a Scot, of course.)

And finally I have bent his bagpipe-playing, kilt-wearing ear — Sassenachs, indeed! — by moaning about the plague of illegitimate ‘whoms’ where ‘who’ is required:

"The prime minister, whom many people suspect is determined to hang on to power…"

"David Cameron, whom I’m inclined to believe is probably a decent man at heart…"

— a kind of misplaced syntactical gentility, like a pathological aversion to the use of ‘me’, as in:  "He spoke to my mother and I",  "the party given by Fred and I", and so on.

And in the same grating category alongside ‘the media has’  is the same wretched abuse of ‘criteria’, hinted at earlier:  "The one criteria for success in this business is…"

Me, or I, I blame that President Bush.


14 Responses

  1. Ronnie says:

    Nice to know you have a Scotch friend. Tell me about him some time. I try to use English plurals. I say and write, though rarely, obviously, octopusses, or perhaps octopuses, because like you I know that it certainly should not be octopi. But it’s a funny world. Have you never, at the beginning of a meeting, said, “Is there an agenda?” So we, and your Scotch friend, may continue to say formulae to each other over a glass of his whiskey – or is it whisky? -smugly and happily as ever.

    Brian replies: In the context that you quote, Ronnie, ‘is there an agenda?’ is all right, according anyway to the guidance in Burchfield’s Fowler — see p. 33. I’m amused, as you intend, by your reference to our mutual Scottish (or Scots) friend as Scotch, especially when you — no doubt also deliberately — go on to imply, insultingly, that his Scotch might be ‘whiskey’, at any rate initially. See Burchfield’s Fowler, p. 846. Burchfield, predictably, also has a nice entry on the plural of octopus (pp. 539-540), pointing out that the plural of the Greek oktopous (????????) could only be oktopodes, which I rather fancy. Burchfield regards ‘octopi’, though justified by ‘modern Latin’, as ‘misconceived’. Incidentally, your first instinct — octopusses — is surely just as misconceived as focusses or busses, or benefitted. Only octopuses will do.

    All good clean fun.

  2. Tim Weakley says:

    Chambers says the plural of octopus is “octopuses or (archaic) octopodes; octopi is wrong.” You’re lucky you’re not a scientist: you don’t have to endure “the data is given below” and “the spectra is shown in Fig. 1,” from students.
    May I start another hare? Is it too late to complain about the verbal use of fine chisels as screwdrivers, in particular the use of “claim” (verb) as a synonym for “assert” or “allege”? Surely if “claim” is followed by an explicit or implicit “that”, it is the wrong choice of word. It should be used in the sense of “state you have a (real or supposed) right to possession of something.” You may claim your luggage or your inheritance, but you may not claim you are the Messiah (even if you are) or claim your opponent is a bare-faced liar (even if he is); nor, if you are a Pretender, may you claim you have a claim to the throne. Stand by for someone to assert that the misusage was first perpetrated by Addison in The Spectator in 1705 (or whenever) and has been going strong ever since!

  3. Brian says:


    You make a very interesting point about ‘claim’ used, or misused, as a near-synonym for ‘assert’ or ‘maintain’ (I say near-synonym because I would maintain, or claim, that ‘claim’ in this context carries a stronger implication of a recognition that the assertion is liable to be contradicted or is otherwise controversial). If this is an offence I have to plead guilty to having often committed it; but my instinct is that the usage you complain of has become respectable by long and frequent usage.

    You get quite strong support from the first edition of the OED:

    Claim (v.):
    c. ‘Often loosely used (esp. in U.S.) for: Contend, maintain, assert’. (F. Hall.)
    1864 O. W. Norton Army Lett. (1903) 204, I don’t claim that they fought well, only as well as they could. 1876 Troy Morning Whig 27 May, The man accused his wife of being intoxicated, which she denied and claimed that he was in that condition himself. 1887 Troy Daily Times 8 Jan., John Weatherwax+procured a peace warrant for the arrest of his son+who he claims has threatened to kill him. 1922 R. Dunn in World’s Work July 119/2 Refet Bey+was hopping mad at an attempt which he claimed that the British had made to kidnap him.

    You will note that the definition is a quotation from, or is contributed by,’F. Hall’, identified in the OED’s Introduction as Fitzedward Hall:

    HALL, Fitzedward, philologist, born in Troy, New York, 21 March, 1825. He was educated at the Rensselaer polytechnic institute, from which he received the degree of civil engineer in 1842, and at Harvard, where he was graduated in 1846.

    Burchfield’s Supplement to the first edition of the OED, edited and published before he began work on his new edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, supplies several additional examples of ‘claim’ in the sense of ‘assert’, ranging from 1864 to 1922. I can’t afford access to the up-to-date online edition of the OED so I don’t know whether it continues to, er, claim that this usage is ‘loose’, as maintained or claimed by F Hall (born, as you’ll have noticed, nearly two centuries ago).

    However, before you break open the bubbly, you need to look at Burchfield’s Fowler on ‘claim’, section 6, on p.148 (not, alas, available online and impossible to scan in, also too long to copy out in full). Burchfield refers to the OED entry and earlier editions of Fowler, which partially support your complaint, but says that

    Time has moved on, and the quotational evidence presented in [the OED and Webster 1989] partially cancels out that cited by the Fowlers.

    After reproducing some of these quotations, from 1922 to 1988, including from Updike and the NY Times, Burchfield concludes that:

    This evidence cannot be gainsaid, but many a copy editor in Britain would nevertheless make an adjustment in such circumstances, esp. by substituting allege, contend, declare, maintain, or say, whichever seemed the most appropriate in the circumstances.

    Shall we settle for a draw?

    BTW, a pet hate of mine is the substitution for ‘quotation’ of ‘quote'(whether referring to a textual quotation or to a quotation mark), although according to the OED (CD-ROM version 2.00, 1999), there is reasonably respectable authority for it, including T S Eliot. (But then Eliot was an American.) Burchfield recognises it only in the form ‘quotes’ used “in copy-editing departments, printing-houses, etc., … as the abbreviated form of ‘quotation marks'”, which is just about acceptable in that limited circumstance, I suppose.


  4. Baralbion says:

    A bit late in the day for me to be commenting on this exchange. But isn’t all this futile? Language changes and always has. Any linguistics primer will show you examples of language changes that have upset many at the time but which we now find perfectly acceptable. We don’t have an equivalent of the French Academy, which is just as well since not even that formidable institution has much influence on current French. Let me give again a reference on the topic which I have provided elsewhere: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1739802,00.html.
    What is surely important that people concentrate on expressing themselves clearly, concisely and courteously (just like the above correspondents).

    Brian comments:  Of course it’s important that people should write and speak clearly, concisely (if possible) and courteously (if justified).  But it’s also important that in doing so they should not reveal a degree of insensitivity to good English by employing usages which make the more sensitive reader or listener wince.  I agree with you and with Professor McCarthy, whom you quote by reference to his Observer article, that English usage changes over time, and that some usages which were just plain wrong when originally used sometimes (but not always) acquire a degree of  legitimacy and eventually of acceptability through frequent use and increased familiarity.  But for a long intermediate period there’s room for argument and disagreement about the point at which the unacceptable, ugly and jarring has become acceptable, standard English, to which it has become pedantic or old-fashioned to object.  For example, teams of charging wild horses wouldn’t make me say or write a sentence such as:

    "He sounds like he’s going to have a fit"

    — whereas I recognise that others wouldn’t turn an un-grey hair at the sight or sound of it.  I acknowledge that this usage (of ‘like’ instead of ‘as if’) has become so common that in ten or fifteen years’ time there will no longer be any question about its acceptability.  By then, also, those old gaffers ‘like’ me (no possible objection to that!) who now abhor it will either be too old to care, or dead.  Many other similar examples come to mind:  ‘presently’ in the sense of ‘at present’ (instead of ‘in due course’) is one.

    The important thing to grasp, however, is that just because some usages are in the process of developing from incorrect into generally acceptable English, it doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as incorrect English.  There is, and using it will grate on many quite ordinary people in a way that will reflect adversely on the speaker or writer, because speaking or writing bad English generally suggests either ignorance, or muddled and clumsy thinking, or all of the above.  Of course not everyone will care about whether it grates or not, or about how it will reflect on them.  But then there are lots of people who don’t care whether they do many things badly or what people will think of them for it.  There’s a kind of betrayal involved in teaching or tolerating sloppiness.

  5. Peter Harvey says:

    In general I must agree with Baralbion. Anyone who wishes to see how standards of acceptability have changed need only look at the Fowlers’ The King’s English (1908), especially the early chapters.
    The problem with your response is that you accept that such judgements are subjective when you speak of sensitivity and wincing, but then you raise the concept of correctness, which implies an objective standard; these two cannot go together. A standard may exist, but if it merely a product of a consensus at the time, then as times change so will manners change with them (as somebody once said, in Latin I believe).
    On the particular matter of plurals, it is true that English has often used the native plural forms of words that have been imported (I won’t say borrowed for so-called loan words are rarely returned), but there seems no reason why they should not be given English plurals as they come to be accepted as a natural part of the language. Referendums for example seems perfectly good to me, especially as I understand that the Latin word would literally refer to what we would now call the referendum question rather than to the process.
    As for data, which is inexorably being made uncountable both by the attraction of information and by the fact that in the way in which it is almost always used it has no singular form, we only need to look at agenda and stamina, which are Latin plurals and English singulars.
    Finally, with regard to sloppiness in teaching the important thing is that sloppy thought should be avoided, or should at least be apparent when it appears; language is merely the medium in which thought is expressed, and it contains its own inbuilt redundancies and illogicalities. Certainly, if language is not subtle or precise, clear and subtle thought cannot be expressed; that was the point of Orwell’s Newspeak in 1984 and it is why I excoriate the hesitation and the use of like as a filler that are so common now in spoken English. But when there is no ambiguity, and no loss of clarity or precision, then there is no harm in acknowledging a change in the standard.
    I spend a considerable amount of my time correcting the English of people who use it as a foreign language, and I quite often find myself explaining that something is not exactly wrong but that it is best avoided because many people will think that it is wrong. I also spend some of my time explaining that the difference between lie and lay (for example) is perfectly clear and objective but that many native speakers cannot get it right. And Spaniards, and even more so Catalans, have had the complications of the use of accents so drummed into them from an early age that they are bemused to learn that British people find it impossible to handle even the simple basic rules for apostrophes (of which more elsewhere).

    Brian writes:  The fact that an incorrect, or more simply wrong, usage makes the sensitive listener or reader flinch certainly doesn’t imply that the wrongness is relative or subjective.  Au contraire, mon vieux.  And why do you think it necessary to tell your students that when they use bad English it "is not exactly wrong"?  If you acknowledge that many English speakers, confused by ‘lie’ versus ‘lay’, "cannot get it right", you are by the same token admitting that they get it "wrong".  No need to be mealy-mouthed about it.

    The objective fact that correct and wrong English both exist is fully consistent with the truism that there are a good many grey areas, in which a formulation may be a matter of taste:  referendums (which, like you, I much prefer) and referenda are both obviously acceptable, whatever the Latin origins might imply.  ‘Agendas’ is acceptable if referring to sheets of paper on which the agenda for a meeting is (not are) written; not if it refers to someone’s programmes of action.  ‘Data’ is (I would argue) always plural, whether it refers to electronic data, as in ‘downloading data’, or whether it means ‘available facts’: ‘datas’ is clearly unacceptable in any sense, and would be contemplated only by the owner of tin ears. I have heard ‘datum’ used at least once, but I forget by whom.  Any takers for the plural of hippopotamus?

  6. Baralbion says:

    Thank you, Peter.  I detect a like mind.  Apostrophes, now, there’s a topic to keep us amused for a few hours. Where is the "more elsewhere"?  
    "Referendums" is certainly OK. To make it "referenda" supposes there is a Latin noun "referendum" having "referenda" as its plural.  I stand ready to be corrected by classicists, but I believe there is no such noun. "Referendum" is a gerund.  Decisions taken away from Rome were "ad referendum", subject to consultation with the boss. 
    For those who can bear it, I – and others – have more to say at http://www.barder.com/ephems/2006/04/15/the-london-times-style-guide-begs-a-question/.

  7. Peter Harvey says:


    My thoughts on apostrophes so far can be found on my own blog (click here).  

    Brian recently sent me something that I will respond to when I have time, but a combination of work early in the month, putting the finishing touches to a book over Easter, and a bout of flu in the last week have all left me without the necessary time.

  8. Peter Harvey says:


    You speak of right and wrong, even of wrong, while I speak of standard and non-standard usage; so, like the two women that Sydney Smith saw arguing across a narrow street from the upper storeys of their houses, we can never agree for we argue from different premises.

    And that reminds me of Flann O’Brien’s superb line in At Swim Two Birds:

    The conclusion of your syllogism, I said lightly, is fallacious, being based upon licensed premises.

    Brian writes: Actually I was quoting your own remark about people not being able to get a particular usage "right": and suggesting that that which is not right may be presumed to be wrong.  In that context at least you didn’t refer to ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’.  But I love the Smith and O’Brien remarks about premises almost as much as I relish Sydney Smith’s other excellent likening of the country (as distinct from the town) to a "kind of healthy grave".

    PS:  Renewed apologies to you, Peter, and other commentators (commenters?) for the continuing difficulties over formatting of comments in this blog, which repeatedly comes out differently from what the writer intended.  I can only suppose it’s a bug in the system which defies fly-spray.  I have tried to use the administrator’s privilege to restore your comment above to something more like what I think you wanted.


  9. Peter Harvey says:


    My problem is that I inhabit two worlds; while theoreticians who look at the language from the standpoint of native speakers talk of standard and non-standard usage, I am constantly dealing with students who naturally want to know what is right and what is wrong for practical purposes — especially as they have an Academy in their own language to tell them precisely that.   The problems that I have in that regard are of quite a different order from what we are discussing here: for example, using the word people with a singular verb or saying *writed instead of wrote; both of these can safely be said to be ‘wrong’, the former because native speakers have a plural concept in mind when they use the word people (with, I admit, an occasional exceptional case in which it is singular), and the latter because it is just not a mistake that any native speaker over the age of about five ever makes naturally so it cannot sensibly be considered as a variation from the standard. 

    PS Thank you for sorting out the formatting of my previous message.

    Brian writes:  I think that’s a useful distinction, Peter.  We can perhaps agree that (1) over a wide range of usage certain formulations can "safely be said to be ‘wrong’", for the reasons you give;  in another category, (2), reside alternative formulations about which educated and well tuned ears may legitimately disagree, and in that category there is indeed no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, since the preferable option is properly a matter of opinion;  and in category (3) there are borderline cases, where some of us are prepared to say that one option is right and another wrong, while others disagree and regard them all as being in category (2).   My definition of ‘right’ (in categories (1) and (3)) is related to standard usage as set out in the main works of reference and as employed by educated English-speakers in the relevant circumstances — i.e., what is standard and acceptable in spoken English may be unacceptable in literary written English, and what is acceptable in an e-mail or a text message may be unacceptable in literary written English or even in informal written English.  And I use ‘educated’ in a broad sense that embraces the self-educated as well as Oxbridge graduates — many of whom are anyway uneducated, being unable to write or speak standard English correctly and clearly.  I also use it unashamedly but unfashionably in a strictly élitist sense.  And yes, I admit that there’s a certain circularity here, since I’m saying that what’s right is defined by how educated English-speakers speak and write, and educated English-speakers are defined by their ability to use and recognise correct English.  Too bad! 

  10. Baralbion says:

    A late addition on the premises theme from that inventive logician, Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodson:

    For a complete logical argument, we need two prim Misses –
    And they produce – a delusion.
    But what is the whole argument called?
    A Sillygism.

  11. Peter Harvey says:


    Despite what you say, you do on occasion describe Fowler (Burchfield) as being insufficently definite and excessively tolerant (as for example over ‘hopefully’). But as I read the book I can clearly see Burchfield wrestling with the very problem that we are discussing here, and solving it as best he can from the standpoint of someone who is advising native speakers whereas I, a teacher of non-native-speakers, start from the same position but may decide that my prioirties are different from his.

    Your argument is indeed circular and that is the point: a standard is defined by the usage of those who define it, and if that usage changes as it inevitably will over time, then the de facto standard changes by definition.

    Brian writes: I don’t think I have ever criticised Burchfield for being “insufficiently definite”, just sometimes a little too lenient and not sufficiently prescriptive. And I don’t criticise him about ‘hopefully’ being just as acceptable as ‘regrettably’ or ‘unfortunately’ in a similar context: I entirely agree with him.

  12. pdogs says:

    Oh – the English Language – its functional beauty being so often tied into its very real versatility and flexibility; a flexibility often not liked one bit by scholars and pedants alike. What I love about Fowler is by the way he tends not to "take sides", by the number of times he makes me smile and by the way he lays open for scrutiny the "topics" that he covers. His treatise on split infinitives is a perfect example.

    I digress. I found this site Googling for "fallacious + argument" not knowing in which work by Flann this sentence had been published. Then I saw the stuff about plurals and it reminded me that "If in doubt then use the English form" is a very good way to go.

    I'm certainly not a scholar of the classics nor, I believe, a pedant but the way the word virus is pluralised gives me the horrors and viruses is I believe the only rational way to write it. Classicists even have difficulty with this word because it is, perhaps uniquely, a word which is neuter and in the fourth declension and so defies a classic pluralisation. Virus (with a long second syllable) is mostly read as a typo or is bizarre or unhelpful when used written down and is probably not even appropriate to the neuter (or so I am informed). Viri has a different meaning altogether and the almost palpably horrible virii gets used all over the place by geeks and nerds alike. There – it was nice to get that off my chest.


    Brian writes:  Good stuff!  Thanks, Paul.  I'm all for 'viruses' — and, come to that, 'forums' and 'papyruses'.  (How many people know why a landing-pad for helicopters should be called a 'helicopad', not a 'helipad'?)  Why don't you get some more niggles off your chest on a visit to a pleasant forum, or message board, devoted to the quirks and  quiddities of language (with occasional diversions), to be found here?  Other visitors with linguistic bees in their hoodies are equally welcome to browse in it and, best of all, to contribute to it.  (And PS:  My father's grandfather and his family came from Krakow, too.  Small world.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *