The plural of virus? Latinate plurals reconsidered

Jan 19, 2012 by

[Thanks to Cynthia Typaldos for bringing this topic to my attention!

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A recent article on by Robert Andrews states:


“Google (NSDQ: GOOG) already operates its own legal book sales elsewhere on Android Market and in Google Books. But its controls on approval in the main app market are minimal. Previously, it has reacted post-publication to remove apps that include malware, for example, exposing users to mobile virii.”

Virii?! This is intended to be the plural form of the Latinate noun virus. However, it is a perfect example of hypercorrected (i.e. “more Catholic than the Pope”) Latinate plurals. Let’s consider this topic more closely.

Latin has contributed many nouns to the English language, and many of them still form plurals in the Latin-derived fashion. For example, the plural of crisis is crises (not *crisises) and the plural of corpus is corpora (not *corpuses). Similarly, the plural of phenomenon is phenomena. Other Latinate noun have both Latin-derived plurals and more regular English counterparts: for instance, the plural of formula is both the Latin-derived formulae and the regular -s plural formulas. Similarly, the plural of forum is both fora and forum, and the plural of schema is both schemata and schemas. Interestingly, in all these instances of alternative plurals, the regular -s plurals are shown to be more common by Google searches. For example, a search for formulae brings up 3,180,000 hits, whereas formulas comes up with 15,000,000 hits.

But while Latin-derived plurals are appropriate for some Latin-derived nouns, in other cases Latin-style plurals are sometimes used even though the nouns would not have that plural form in Latin itself. Case in point is virii (or viri), the putative Latin-derived plural of virus. In fact, the word virus in Latin was a mass noun (not unlike English footwear or furniture): while referring to entity that can be conceived as consisting of individual units (e.g. furniture consists of individual pieces such as tables, chairs etc.), virus was conceptualized as a mass/substance. And as a mass noun, it did not have plural at all (note that there is no *furnitures in English).

Another example of a hypercorrected Latinate plural is the word syllabus. Numerous times I have heard my colleagues in the academic world report having prepared their course syllabi. But this form is incorrect too, as far as Latin itself is concerned: in Latin the plural of syllabus is syllabūs, with a long rather than short vowel in the suffix. Similarly, the plural of octopus is not *octopi, as this noun is a Latinized form of Greek ὀκτώ-πους ‘eight-foot’. The theoretically correct form octopodes is rarely used, so unless you want to sound pretentious, use the regular English plural octopuses.

This brings me to the much debated issue of data: is it singular or plural? In Latin, from which the noun derives, the form data is the plural of the singular datum. But the singular datum is not used in English, hence the confusion. So should it be the data is … or the data are? Usage differs depending on the register and the dialect. In popular usage the more frequently used form is the data is/shows/… thus treating data as the singular. In scientific usage, however, there is a difference between the British and the American usage: in the UK the preferred form is the data are/show/etc… (not unlike the British use of collective nouns, as in the police are…). In the US, you are more likely to encounter the data is/shows/… in scientific usage and popular usage alike.

In fact, Latin is not the only language that has contributed plural nouns that have been refashioned in English to be singular nouns. For example, Italian has contributed the following i-plurals all of which have become singular in English: biscotti, graffiti, paparazzi, panini and of course spaghetti. In Italian, the proper singular forms are biscotto, graffito, paparazzo, panino and spaghetto (of course, one rarely talks about one spaghetto in Italian, but one can).In English, however, the Italian plural forms serve as the singular, with some of the nouns acquiring the doubly-plural is-forms, as in paparazzis and paninis.

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