No play, no plurals

May 12, 2010

I should know better than to be surprised by the language used on signs, but the phrase “Ball sports is prohibited” struck me as a remarkable singularisation.

Did the parties responsible start with “The playing of ball sports…” before deciding to reduce the word count? Whatever the explanation, at least this time there’s a minimum of gobbledegook.


Forums, forum, fora

February 2, 2010

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?

[image source]

No one, no-one, nobody, no noone

September 14, 2009

The indefinite pronouns no one and nobody are largely interchangeable. Garner (1998) notes that no one is more formal and literary, a judgement supported by this corpus analysis. Both terms, however, are apt to appear without controversy in almost any kind of writing.

No one, meaning no person, is spelt with two words. The hyphenated no-one is a common variant, especially in informal contexts, though it is less to my taste than the traditional two-worded form. The diaeretic noöne is unlikely to enter common usage. The practice of writing no one as noone may have resulted from its virtual synonymity with the one-worded nobody; from its connection to the similarly unified everyone, anyone and someone; or from the tendency for the morphology of many compound words to go from A B to A-B to AB.

Noone is a decidedly strange spelling of no one. To my eyes, today, it is wrong, but no one can say for sure what usage will be accepted in 50 years’ time. Noone implies the monosyllabic pronunciation /nuːn/, especially to non-native speakers of English. (Mind you, I have yet to hear anyone mispronounce cooperate.) Searches for ‘noone’ on turned up a small number of results, all of them the archaic spelling of noon.

Nobody Knows 1Moreover, noone immediately suggests some specific person called Noone, e.g. the actor Nora-Jane Noone or the musician Peter Noone. Thus it may lead to momentary ambiguity or to additional meanings that are both unintended and comic:

Noone loves me, but I have my eye on Sullivan.
Noone saw Noone leave the room.
Noone was behind the tree, so I discreetly relieved myself before rejoining the others.

You see the problem.

Now, a few notes on usage.

Indefinite pronouns (no one, everyone, anybody, etc.) usually take singular verbs but can be referred to by singular or plural pronouns (they, them, their). If you follow an indefinite pronoun with a plural pronoun, you scupper notional agreement (aka ‘concord’), but you avoid awkward constructions such as s/he and his or her, as well as the accusations of sexism habitually slung at the notoriously gender-specific he, his and him.

Sometimes the singular form will be called for, and it is preferred by some writers, but there is nothing grammatically wrong with the plural.

‘Nobody remembers a journalist for their writing’ – Richard F Shepard
‘[N]o one can ever be in love more than once in their life’ – Jane Austen, in Sense and Sensibility
‘Nobody here seems to look into an Author, ancient or modern, if they can avoid it’ – Lord Byron, in a letter

This last quote is cited in The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, which adds that Byron’s ‘Nobody here’ could only have meant males. Yet he opted for genderless they, and it seems altogether natural and sensible. Elsewhere, MWDEU states that ‘the plural they, their, them with an indefinite pronoun as referent is in common standard use’. Writing about any, anyone and anybody, Robert Burchfield points out that ‘popular usage and historical precedent favour the use of a plural pronoun’. In adopting the singular use of ‘plural’ they, Byron is in good company.

So, would you write ‘No one in their right mind’, ‘No one in his right mind’, ‘No one in her right mind’, ‘No one in his or her right mind’, ‘No one in zer right mind’, or what? My advice is to approach these options with an open mind; to be aware of, but not cowed by, those who decry singular-they constructions; and to let context, meaning and good sense guide your decision.

[image source]

Plurals of acronyms, abbreviations, initialisms and single letters

August 10, 2009

Plurals of acronyms, abbreviations, initialisms and single letters do not usually take apostrophes. Guidance on this issue is not unanimous, but some general advice can be consistently applied, and may help resolve some of the widespread confusion that seems to be generating even more widespread confusion.

Stan Carey - Twitter Trending TopicsPictured is a screenshot from Twitter, taken a few months ago, showing popular subjects or “Trending Topics”. The vast numbers of people using Twitter means that for a subject to become a “Trending Topic”, it needs to be mentioned a great deal. Because the software distinguishes between two words that are identical apart from the presence or absence of an apostrophe, both “SATs” and “SAT’s” have the potential to appear concurrently in the list, as indeed they did. Evidently, both forms are widely used. My preference is for “SATs”, and I would consider “SAT’s” ill-advised, because such apostrophes are largely unnecessary and potentially confusing.

A recent report from TechCrunch illustrates the potential for miscues from apostrophised plurals:

Read the rest of this entry »

Data is data, or are they?

May 7, 2009

The short answer: data can be singular or plural. In some formal and technical contexts the plural form is preferred, but the singular form is increasingly common and is fully standard. In most contexts you can write these data or this data, data are or data is, and so on.

Data emerged in 1646 as the plural of the Latin datum, which according to the OED was the past participle of dare (‘give’) and meant ‘a thing given or granted; a thing known or assumed as a fact, and made the basis of reasoning or calculation; a fixed starting point for a series of measurements etc.’

Datum retains the general meaning of ‘a unit of information’, though it tends to appear mostly in academic and specialist disciplines such as philosophy, surveying, geodesy, topography, technical drawing, and cartography:

Several map datums were erroneous, which threw the hikers off-track.

‘The principal datum input to any search algorithm is a description of its search space.’ (Alan Hutchinson, Algorithmic learning)

‘[T]he paper seen and the seeing of it are only two names for one indivisible fact which, properly named, is the datum, the phenomenon, or the experience.’ (William James, The Meaning of Truth)


The meaning of the derived plural data has changed somewhat over the centuries. The OED definition from the late 19thC (‘Facts, esp. numerical facts, collected together for reference or information’) seems to testify to the broadening influence of the hard sciences. In the 20thC the rapidly expanding fields of information technology incorporated the word into a huge variety of computer-related compound nouns, such as database, data entry, data flow, data mining, data processing, data protection, and data stream.

Plural data is used in many scientific, technical, academic and other formal contexts, though different practices prevail in different places. Among the major news media, The Economist advises the plural usage; The Guardian, singular. The Times Style Guide expressly permits both. Here are some examples of plural usage found via the British National Corpus:

‘Our data are too uncertain to draw firm conclusions’ (Criminal Law Review)

‘Most of the data are new’ (Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology)

‘These data are then used to calculate bond enthalpies.’ (Michael Freemantle, Chemistry in Action)

In computing jargon, social sciences, and everyday use, data is often treated as an abstract mass noun, like information. It has the general meaning ‘mass of information’ and takes a singular verb, singular pronoun (it) and singular modifiers (e.g. this, a few, much):

‘On this map the data is recorded by county and not by region’ (Peter Hardy, A Right Approach to Economics?)

‘All this data is then written up as a technical report’ (Atkins & Atkins, An Introduction to Archaeology)

‘The retina codes and combines the data so that it can be fed into the 1 million fibres entering the optic nerve’ (Laszlo Solymar, Lectures on Electromagnetic Theory)

IBM Electronic Data Processing Machine s

Few non-specialists who use the word data think of it as the plural of datum. Similarly, agenda has taken on a singular life of its own, distinct from the near-obsolete agendum, and has given rise to the standard plural agendas. Consider also media (from medium), criteria (criterion), graffiti (graffito), and stamina (stamen). All of these plurals have varying degrees of acceptance and acceptability. Agendas may be common and standard, but medias, datas and criterias are not – at least, not much and not yet.

A note of advice: try to be internally consistent, and be mindful of context. Sometimes one form is preferred: for example, most publishers have a house style to which your text must conform. Even in reputable publications, however, usage is mixed, and discrepancies can result in editorial mix-ups, as Merriam-Webster has shown. Readers who cling to the Latin origins of data may protest the singular form on principle, but this gripe is misguided. I should know: the singular form used to grate on me, but I wised up.

[Image sources: Chicago City Datum; IBM electronic data processing machine]

Nouns of multitude

March 23, 2009

This is quite a long and technical post so I have divided it into three sections (What; Which and why; So) and have included a lot of examples.


Nouns of multitude are wholes that comprise similar parts. They are a type of collective noun; examples include committee, team, government, jury, Ministry, army, group, party, crowd, flock, generation, mobstaff, department, family, crew, clergy, herd, syndicate, faculty, audience, public, company, Congress, orchestra, firm, and Parliament.

There is confusion over whether nouns of multitude are singular (the collective entity) or plural (the individuals in it). In fact they are both, or rather they can be either. This ambiguity means that there are better and worse ways to use them – but there is no definitive right and wrong way. To tease out the details we must look more closely at how they are used.

When using nouns of multitude with verbs and pronouns, the main thing is to be consistent. The following examples are not:

After the jury returns with their verdict…
The committee has agreed that after their AGM next week…

These lines are missing what is known as “notional agreement” or “notional concord”. They are unlikely to bother the casual reader, but they are likely to be revised in edited prose. More conspicuously aberrant is an example I read over the weekend:

Stan Carey - nouns of multitude in RTE rugby story

From: Ireland crowned grand slam champions, RTÉ News, 21 March 2009. The Minister’s original statement (“They are deserving winners…”) was fine; RTÉ introduced the incongruence of making team both singular and plural in the same clause.

Which and why

So if a noun of multitude can be singular or plural, which should it be, and why? The team was, or the team were? The jury finds, or the jury find? Your decision depends first on whether you are writing American or British English. The plural form is more common in BrE (The press have reacted swiftly), though the singular form is also standard (The Government anticipates). The singular form is more common in AmE (The press has reacted swiftly). But these are mere generalities; there is considerable variation.

Your decision also depends on what you want to emphasise. To stress a group’s plurality, use the plural; to stress the group as a unit, use the singular:

The department is prepared for cutbacks (the department as a whole is prepared)
The department are to be praised for their efforts (all individuals in the department deserve praise)

Sports teams usually take the plural in British English (the team were deserving winners; Liverpool are beating United), but in business contexts and AmE they can just as suitably take the singular (Manchester United is a wealthy club; Baltimore beats Browns).

If you are still unsure, a pronoun might help you decide. You would not write: “the board fought among itself” because it takes at least two to fight; this implication immediately suggests the plural: “The board fought among themselves”. (It’s easier to succumb to contradictions when speaking than when writing, and easier to ignore contradictions when listening than when reading.)


With these conventions and principles in mind we look again at earlier examples:

After the jury returns with their verdict…

Singular and plural forms (returns and its, or return and their, respectively) are both standard in BrE; the singular form dominates in AmE. Both are fine.

The committee has agreed that after their AGM next week…

The singular (has and its) is acceptable, but suggests a unit agreeing with itself, whereas the plural (have and their) suggests round-the-table agreement by all the members of the committee. This connotation makes the plural the better choice. Subtle distinctions sometimes accompany the verb, and might help you decide whether singular or plural is preferable.

If it doesn’t clutter your syntax, you can elaborate for the sake of accuracy and clarity, e.g. by referring to the Cabinet as the Cabinet members, or the members of the Cabinet, both of which are plainly plural. This tactic is less likely to work if the collective noun appears frequently, because it would lead to the aforementioned clutter. And you won’t see it in a headline, where concision is paramount.

Finally, using a collective noun as both singular and plural in the same context is inadvisable if you want to maintain notional agreement, but in casual or colloquial usage it presents no problem. To borrow an example from Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage:

The family is well and send their regards.

The family as a whole is [are] well, and the people in it send their regards. Were the family to send its regards, it would seem less personal.

Octopuses, octopi and oktopodes

October 2, 2008

Of the three words commonly cited as a plural for octopus, octopuses is the preferred term. The others are octopi and octopodes (pronounced ok-TOP-ɘ-deez, or ɒk’tɒpədiːz in the International Phonetic Alphabet). Fowler’s third edition claims that the only acceptable plural is octopuses, and that octopi is misconceived. Fowler’s second edition is still more blunt, calling it wrong. Perhaps, but octopi has been used by many reputable publications and raises fewer eyebrows than octopodes. The popularity of octopi, however, seems to be waning on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fowler is not alone in rejecting octopi; some linguists do so on the grounds that octopus was not originally a Latin word but a Greek one – hence the pedantic plural octopodes, which is rarely if ever seen outside dictionaries, usage guides, and blog posts such as the one you are reading. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage counters that octopus was imported not from Greek but from New Latin, which took it from the Greek oktopous. This gives octopuses a grammatical edge over octopi, as well as historical precedence (original citations in 1884 and 1922 respectively).

If you want to use octopus in the plural, choosing octopuses should forestall accusations of inaccuracy, irregularity or obscurantism. And if you want a break from etymology, here’s an octopus being amazing. Some commentators have described its remarkable communication strategy as a way of wearing its language on its skin.