The Grammarphobia Blog

Plurals of wisdom

Q: I recently purchased Woe Is I Jr. for some little friends and enjoyed reading it myself. However, there is one little thing that I must take issue with in the section on plurals. You have the words “beau” and “chateau” made plural with an “s.” I was raised in the French tradition and believe those two words and others that end in “u” should be made plural with an “x.”

A: Let me explain my advice on forming the plurals of words derived from French and other languages. As the years go by, nouns of foreign origin (like memorandum, stadium, appendix, and so on) tend to lose their foreign plural endings (memoranda, stadia, appendices), and adopt Anglicized plural forms (memorandums, stadiums, appendixes).

As I point out in my adult grammar book, Woe Is I, the foreign plurals of these and other words would have been preferred a century (or even 50 years) ago, but preferences gradually shift as English endings become more common. Dictionaries eventually recognize this by listing the Anglicized version first instead of second.

There’s often a period in which the two versions are equally common. For example, the contest between referendums and referenda is almost a tie these days (referendums wins by a nose). Of course, if the Latinate plural, referenda, appeals to you, by all means use it. It’s not incorrect. But when you want to go along with current preferences, consult a usage guide or pick the plural that’s listed first in the dictionary. It’s likely to be the one most commonly used.

I’d like to emphasize that the old foreign plurals are not wrong! They merely become less common in ordinary usage. The choice is still yours to make. With that in mind, here’s a partial list of current preferences:

Anglicized plurals preferred: antennas (except those on insects), appendixes, beaus, cactuses, chateaus, curriculums, formulas, gymnasiums, indexes, memorandums, millenniums, referendums, stadiums, syllabuses, symposiums, tableaus, ultimatums, virtuosos.

Foreign plurals preferred: addenda, algae, analyses, antennae (on insects), axes (for axis), bacteria, bases (for basis), crises, criteria, fungi, hypotheses, kibbutzim, larvae, oases, parentheses, phenomena, radii (but radiuses is gaining fast), stimuli, strata, theses, vertebrae.

I hope this clarifies the subject (or subjects)!

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.