Forums, forum, fora

Forum has three main meanings. There is the everyday sense — a place or medium for public discussion and the open exchange of ideas; the legal sense — a court of law, tribunal, or other legal assembly; and the historical sense — a marketplace or other public arena in ancient Roman cities, where civic, commercial and judicial activities were conducted.

The first sense includes online discussion forums. Several of these have featured discussions about the correct plural of forum itself — is it forums or fora? — as have some language blogs and other sites. Latin plurals are evidently a popular topic. Some of the commentary is sensible and even-handed, but some comprises simple repudiation of one plural form or the other (e.g. ‘The plural of “forum” is FORA since it’s a Latin word. […] Sorry to be pedantic, but that’s the English language for you’). So a little clarification seems to be in order.

Forums reflects the word’s naturalisation into English, while fora stays true to its Latin origin. Forums is much more common, outnumbering fora by a considerable margin. This is especially so in the word’s everyday sense; in its legal and historical senses, fora is less unusual. (I’ve based these assessments on personal reading and editing experience, and on searches in various corpora and search engines.)

Fora in the everyday sense of forum is not incorrect, but some readers might find it fussy or pretentious, and usage commentators disagree over its suitability. Don Watson considers it “archaic”. All three editions of Fowler’s report that the plural occurs only as forums. (This, however, is demonstrably wrong.) Kenneth G. Wilson, in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, lists both forms as standard. Bryan Garner takes an intermediate position, describing forums as “preferred” and fora as “pedantic”.

The English language is inconsistent in its pluralisation of Latin words. Of those ending in -um, some retain the Latin endings (bacterium bacteria; quantum quanta; stratum strata; ovum ova; desideratum desiderata); others, being more Anglicised, generally take the English -s (albums, asylums, museums, gymnasiums, crematoriums, premiums); while some commonly take either, depending on context or personal preference (atriums or atria; aquariums or aquaria; compendiums or compendia; podiums or podia).

In summary: fora is not wrong, but unless you’re writing about law or Roman history, you’re better off using forums. Foras is wrong.

See also: Data is data, or are they?

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27 Responses to Forums, forum, fora

  1. Ana says:

    Interesting! Then there is medium and media. I don’t mind being “pedantic”. ‘Pedantic’ is also a very common -sometimes overused, word in Spanish by the way, I don’t hear it in the English language.

  2. Stan says:

    Hi Ana! Medium and media is an unusual case, because mediums is the plural of medium in the sense of “spiritualist”, while media in the sense of communications media has become a mass noun that often takes a singular verb or pronoun. Both of the following are standard constructions: “the media is responsible for its own content”; “the media are responsible for their own content”.

    Pedantry can be helpful and constructive, but it can also be overdone and is sometimes ill-informed (if that’s not a contradiction in terms).

  3. Avraham says:

    Love the post! The English language is constantly bewildering us by its inconsistencies. I wouldn’t trade it for any other language!

  4. Stan says:

    Thanks Avraham — you put it well. English certainly can be bewilderingly inconsistent, but this is part of its irrepressible appeal.

  5. Either/or does me although I tend to use fora.I like that both forums and fora are acceptable in English.. What a language where there is now word where six eill do!

  6. Stan says:

    It’s a handy one all right, Jams — no need to wonder which version you should be using. I suppose redundancy is in many ways more a feature than a bug!

  7. Sean Jeating says:

    Forums is utterly wrong … in German.

    Joking aside: Very interesting once again to see the similarities, Stan.
    The English plural ending s in German is <en.
    Thus, forums – Foren/Fora; museums – Museen; referendums – Referenden/referenda.
    I can’t remember anyone talking about Fora.
    I think many of those (still) using the Latin plural want to let their audience know they enjoyed a classical/humanistic education.

    And a question re criterion / criteria. Is there also an anglicised plural ending (criterions)?

  8. Tim says:

    Plurals for Latin-rooted words; what an interesting topic! When it comes to forums, however, we throw the “s” on there to pluralise, simply because the word “forum” is an English word, and has been for a very long time.

    I have never heard anyone refer to forums as fora, though. I guess I don’t know any Latin speakers… >.<

  9. Stan says:

    Sean: Thank you for educating me on the German situation! I remember the basic plural formation, -en, but I didn’t know that Latin forms persisted, as they have in English. There probably is an element of intellectual pride in certain instances, where Latin (or other foreign) usage serves as an affectation, or to signify learning. In such cases its suitability depends largely on the reading or listening audience, I think.

    Criteria occupies somewhat fuzzy territory. Criterions is occasionally used but does not seem to have been widely adopted. The standard plural, criteria, is frequently used as a singular noun — though less so in edited prose. I would consider singular criteria an error, but it may well go the way of agenda and data and eventually be accepted as a singular noun even in formal contexts.

    Tim: Discussing Latin-influenced plurals is, I suppose, a quintessentially nerdy activity. But it’s too late to turn back now, even if I wanted to! Yes, the addition of -s shows the word’s Anglicisation, or naturalisation into English.

    Fora would seem strange if you haven’t seen it before, though in its similarity to flora it is not an unattractive word. I come across it now and then; some of my clients (whose reports I have edited) show a clear preference for it, whether or not they know any Latin.

  10. Sean Jeating says:

    Thank you for explaining, Stan. Very interesting. Criteria in German would – as far as know – not be used as a singular noun. Same goes for media.
    Thus: Die Medien sind für ihre [eigenen] Inhalte verantwortlich = “the media are responsible for their own content”.

    Why would I put ‘eigenen’ in brackets? Answer: to prepare following question.
    Isn’t enough to say ‘their contents’ / ihre Inhalte?
    In other words: Isn’t ‘own’ redundant?

  11. Stan says:

    Sean: Yes, with a but! The phrase means essentially the same thing without own, but a subtle emphasis is lost, at least to my Irish ears. I myself, for example, sometimes add these emphases to my own speech…

  12. Sean Jeating says:

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha …
    Now you, yourself, explained this so nicely, Stan, we three – I, me and myself – shall never ever address Irish folks and people re both tautologistic and pleonastic redundancies.
    The peace of the night, my friend.

  13. Stan says:

    The (very) same to you, good sir! I might add, also, in passing, while we’re both here, that your strategy is sound, sensible, solid and sane.

    (And when you have time, you will surely enjoy this.)

  14. Sean Jeating says:

    Great link, Stan. Thanks!
    I’ll have it for breakfast.
    Ha, looking forward to that.

  15. Claudia says:

    Thanks, Stan! Delightful and informative post and comments. The last link is priceless. I thought only the French could “talk the teeth out of a saw.” We are verbose and redundant but maybe the Irish are more adept at verbal exaggeration. It’s easy to forgive people (if needed) when they have such a flavourful way to express themselves.

    May I say here that I truly admire Sean’s mastery of the Irish culture? When (over a year ago) I first read 2-3 posts from Omnium, it had so much colour (and with the name Sean) I had the feeling it was an Irish blog. I’m a little envious…I read somewhere that most everybody would want a bit of Irish blood in their veins. I’m one of them. Sláinte!

  16. Stan says:

    Enjoy your breakfast, Sean!

    Claudia, if the Irish are more partial to verbosity and adept at exaggeration, it may be because we have been practising for so long. Our ancient myths, sagas and folk epics make an art of hyperbole, and a humorous one at that. I have heard many visitors to the country remark on how we seem to prefer saying simple things in a long-winded and roundabout fashion. It drives some people crazy, but when it’s done with colour and flair and an innate love of language, I am only grateful for it.

    You’re right about Sean. When I first encountered him I couldn’t help but wonder where and how he had become so Irish! I presumed he had spent time here, which he has (and hopefully will again), and gradually I became aware of his literary learning, which he wears so lightly but shares so enthusiastically. The spirits of James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, and many other scribes of various nationalities, flow busily through him. You need not be envious: I think you have some Irish blood in you too — more so than many who would claim and declare it!

  17. Sean Jeating says:

    Not only that with delight my heart rose like a falcon up to the sky; I shall immediately try to intensify to improve my skills when it comes to putting into 50 sentences what I could easily put into one.

    Well, and I am, you know, of course, blushing. Thank you very much, indeed, for your kind words, dear Claudia, dear Stan.

  18. Claudia says:

    Thank you, Stan, for being always so nice and hospitable. I love visiting you.:-)

  19. I think the German language will creep up as an international language that we need to take into account as well.
    Thank you for your share here. Nice to meet you all, guys…

  20. Stan says:

    Unlimited Forum: Perhaps it will. I’d better improve my grasp of it!

  21. Sean Jeating says:

    Ich bezweifle das. I doubt that. :)

  22. Claudia says:

    My French-Canadian brother – not knowing the German language but loving the culture deeply – often wondered why French had always be so dominant on the international scene, and not German. He felt strongly that we would all have profited immensely by reading German philosopy and poetry in the original language. “Better than the politically frivolous French.” he would add seriously. He had been devastated by the rise of Hitler – his words: “It’s NOT Germany!” And at the Paris surrender, in WW2, he had snarled (maybe unjustly?), “Typical French!”

    I guess he would say, “Hear! Hear!” to Unlimited Forum‘s comment.

    To understand my brother, maybe you should know that the French had dismissed its Quebec colony, in 1763, with Voltaire’s words: “Quelques arpents de neige!” “A few acres of snow!” We were left to fight for ourselves to keep our language and to acquire our unique culture. And there, in WW2, on the Normandy Beaches, my brother had to fight the Germans (whose culture he respected) to liberate our ” Mère Patrie.” Truly ironic!

    This is not a political statement on a language blog, Stan. Just a justification for the German language to become international. With a wink, and a smile. À votre santé, all of you!

  23. Claudia says:

    Dear Stan – I should have added (in case you have any doubt) that my brother, who was much older than his baby sister, was, is and will always be right. Cheers!

  24. Stan says:

    Sean: Du hast eine bessere Position als ich, aber wer kann sagen? :)

    Claudia: Et à la votre! Merci beaucoup pour l’histoire. I didn’t see it as political but rather historical — personal history at that, and more appreciated for it. J’ai senti le clin d’oeil et le sourire avant d’y voir. The tale has a truly ironic conclusion, as you say. It must have been all the stranger for your brother to have that additional inner conflict during the war.

    Voltaire’s dismissal of France’s Canadian colonies is quite famous, but I know little about its context. It seems a very harsh judgement, though! (P.S. “had always been so dominant”; “philosophy” — typos, probably, but I know you’d prefer that I point them out.)

  25. Claudia says:

    Merci pour les corrections. Yes, they are typos. A bit frustrating that I reread my comment three times, and now it’s laughing at me…well…sort of. I guess editors feel like that! But, as them, I like to know.

    I don’t think my brother ever fully recovered from the war, Stan. He partly resolved his conflict by refusing to glorify WW2, and to be called a hero. He hated Rememberance Day. He would tell me, “War is hell! Only dead soldiers are heroes.” As I got older, and learned more about the war, I pointed out to him, once, that he had fought in a “just war.” He looked at me with haunted eyes, and replied, “A war is just until you’re on a battlefield and you have to kill decent, young German men, because they’re led by a madman, and if you don’t kill them, they’ll kill you, and the madman will rule the world. There are NO JUST WARS for any side, Claude.” I never spoke with him again about the war.

    As for Voltaire, I often wondered why him and France had been so disinterested about the French Colony. I did a lot of reading on the subject. I got the best answer recently in the comments of Westminster Wisdom in a January post: Why did Britain conquer the Americas so much more slowly than Spain. It’s simply that the Colonies didn’t seem to have much to offer. And look at my glorious country today. Two small colonies who managed to get along, and to unite to form Canada, with two official languages, multiculturalism, and a fascinating diversity. Forgive me for bragging, M’sieur Voltaire. Et mon français est très savoureux, merci!

    Thank you for your hospitality. All the best, Stan!

  26. […] a big paycheck I managed to give solid coverage to the October 20 and October 27 candidate forums (fora?) held here in Madison. My notes and video from both events provided the most complete online […]

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