The Grammarphobia Blog

Graduate degrees

Q: Shouldn’t the graduates of a coed institution be “alumnae,” not “alumni”? My understanding is that “alumni” is the plural of “alumnus,” and “alumnae” pertains to both male and female graduates. Thanks for your help.

A: A group of alumnae is not a mixed group. Here’s the deal with all those alums:

“Alumnus”: singular, for a male graduate

“Alumna”: singular, for a female graduate

“Alumni”: plural, for either male graduates or males and females together

“Alumnae”: plural, for female graduates only

The term “alums,” which I used above, dodges the gender issue (as does the singular “alum”).

The short form “alum” is considered “informal” by The America Heritage Dictionary of English Usage (4th ed.), but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it without comment.

Interestingly, both the short and long forms entered English in the 17th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the long one in 1645 and the short one in 1683 (spelled “alumn”).

But the short version seems to have fallen into disuse, according to the OED citations, and didn’t show up in print again until the early 20th century.

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