A Dangerous Thing


It’s not only the pronunciation of Classical names and words that has changed as a result of the pseudo-knowledge of Latin and Greek by British people. Grammatical forms have also been affected.

As ‘every skuleboy no’, Latin nouns that end in -US have their plural in -I. So, for instance, ALUMNUS gives ALUMNI, and DOMINUS gives DOMINI.

But every schoolboy is wrong. I have recently seen the word “omnibi”. The writer felt it necessary to explain that this was the plural of “omnibus” (and I don’t think he was joking). Even more shocking was my experience at a meeting of professional phoneticians a few years ago, when two separate presentations were given in which the speakers explained that their results were gained from analysing “corpi”. Clearly the Latin education of these people had never stretched as far as the third declension. If it had, they would have known that the plural of CORPUS is CORPORA, and that OMNIBUS is already plural – the dative and ablative plural of the adjective OMNIS. It would be better if we just attached the ordinary English plural to all these words, as we do with CENSUS (4th declension), whose Latin plural is CENSUS. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that as the plural in an English sentence – censuses is the regular thing. And since we abbreviate omnibus to bus, and give that the plural buses, what’s wrong with ‘corpuses’, ‘alumnuses’ and all the rest of them? We could stretch this to Greek plurals as well, and have ‘phenomenons’ rather than what we get now – phenomena as a singular. Referendums and referenda are already alternative plurals, and when it comes to words from other languages, we are happy to simply add ‘s’ – cellos, not ‘celli’; opuses, rather than opera -which has been hijacked to mean something different as a singular, and has generated the regular plural operas. Rarely do we obey Italian plural rules – has anyone seen the Italian plurals of gondola, piazza, pizza, in an English context? Where we do use Italian plurals, in the names of the various pastas (‘paste’, anyone?), they are treated as we treat hair, sugar, wheat, rice, advice, as uncountable nouns that are singulars (“This spaghetti is very nice – where did you buy it?”).


  1. Consortium is the one which most often annoys me. For some reason, the plural “consortia” is quite often being used as a singular, for example:

    “The Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information (CASRAI) is an international, non-profit organisation …”

  2. Matthew – I find this a quite confusing name. If I can find out more about how it was arrived at, I shall post another comment! Thanks for pointing it out.

  3. I started to notice the phenomenon maybe as much as ten years ago, in the context of library computer systems. It became more common for universities to buy one computer system in common to save costs, operating as a consortium. So the suppliers had to make it clear that their products include support for consortia. “XXX fully supports consortia”. “YYY includes consortia support”. And then somehow some people with no understanding of Latin thought that “consortia” sounded more educated and started using it as the singular. If you search on Google for “we are a consortia” you get examples like this:

    We are a consortia in California looking to migrate some libraries and consortia to both Evergreen and Koha …

    There are also examples outside the world of university libraries, I am relieved to say. A Google search for “we are a consortium” retrieves about eight times as many results, so the cause is not lost yet.

  4. Matthew – if we take “Information” as the headword of the phrase, then we can interpret CASRAI as being “the information (organisation) for consortia which advance standards in Research Administration” in which case, there is nothing wrong with ‘consortia’, but this is stretching it a bit. We can take the confusion over Greek plurals back a lot further than this: I’m reading John Evelyn’s Diaries at the moment, and found this: “…other large Water within our View appeard of a more darke & uniforme Colour, resembling those spotts in the Moone, attributed to the seas there & according to our new Philosophy & the Phænomenas by optical Glasses …” (3-5 October 1641).

  5. Thanks very interesting

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