The Grammarphobia Blog

I say father and you say pater

Q: I just finished Origins of the Specious and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. But I have one minor issue. I fear that your disdain for Latinistas has led you to accept too many Anglicized plurals. I teach biology and see nothing wrong with using “fora” instead of “forums.” Unfortunately, I see “fora” less and less, and “forums” more and more. Sigh! One other disagreement, sort of. I LIKE “an historic,” and I was taught the “an” is expected.

A: Thanks for your comments, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I also appreciate hearing your opinions about Latin plurals.

But “fora”? You have to be kidding! I’m not surprised that you’re seeing it less and less. I’m surprised that you’re seeing it at all outside your classroom.

The “forum” entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which has five and a half centuries of citations, doesn’t include a single example for the plural “fora.” The only plurals cited are Anglicized, as in this example from a 1647 English translation of Juvenal: “The city of Rome had four great forums or piazzas.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list “forums” as the primary plural of “forum,” though they do include “fora” as a less frequently used, secondary variant.

As for “historic,” why say “an historic” if you don’t say “an house” or “an hot dog” or “an haircut”?

The article “an” before a sounded “h” is unnatural in English and in fact is discouraged in Britain as well as the United States.

Check out the British dictionary Longman’s, which, under its entry for “historic,” gives these example of its proper use: a historic meeting of world leaders and “It is a historic moment,” he told journalists.

If you’d like to read more about this aitch business, I wrote a blog entry on the subject a couple of years ago.

Sorry if I sound cranky; I don’t mean to be. To end on a lighter note, here’s a Latin lesson from Ira Gershwin: “I say father and you say pater, / I say mother and you say mater; / Father, mother, auntie, uncle – / Let’s call the whole thing off!”

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