The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “syllabus” related to “syllable”?

Q: Here’s a silly question: Is “syllabus” related to “syllable”? I’ve been wondering about this since getting into an argument with a classmate over the plural of “syllabus.” I think it should always be “syllabi.”

A: Surprisingly, “syllabus” and “syllable” are complete strangers.

“Syllable” (part of a word pronounced as a unit) came into English in the 14th century from Anglo-French, and was ultimately an adaptation of the Latin syllaba, from the Greek syllabe.

As the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and the Oxford English Dictionary explain it, the Greek word was composed of parts meaning “a putting or taking together.”

So to the ancients, Chambers says, a syllable was “several sounds or letters taken or joined together” as a unit.

But “syllabus,” which came into English in the 17th century, originated as a mistake, according to both Chambers and the OED.

Our word for an outline of a treatise, a course of study, and so on is a borrowing from Late Latin, the Latin used from the third to the sixth or seventh century.  

However, the Late Latin word for list (syllabus) originated in error, from a misreading of the Greek word sittybas (a title slip or parchment label) as syllabos.

How should you refer in English to more than one “syllabus”? The word has two acceptable plurals: “syllabi” and “syllabuses.”

The first has the original Latin plural ending, and the second the Anglicized one. Both are listed in standard dictionaries, and in our opinion the Anglicized version sounds more natural.

We’ve written several blog items about the tendency of Latin plural endings to become Anglicized over time, including a posting in 2007.

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