The minutiae of Latin plurals

Posted by on July 08, 2013

© Photodisc / Getty ImagesAmong the recent entries in Macmillan’s crowdsourced Open Dictionary is the word persona as used in marketing contexts to mean “a fictitious character based on known features of the target audience for a product”. That is, during product development a company might “[create] several personas” with which to check that an item is suitable and fit for purpose.

Business has of course adapted persona from more general use, where it means “the part of your personality that you deliberately show most people” – a sort of social facade, though without necessarily any negative connotations. But what interests me here is the plural form used in the definition’s example sentence: personas.

English constantly imports words from other languages, and over time these loan words can become thoroughly anglicised and may therefore be pluralised in the usual English ways: typically by adding -s or -es. Persona retains its Latin flavour and so the Latin plural personae survives, though some restrict it to literary and technical contexts. The anglicised plural personas is also frequently seen; indeed, both forms are on the rise.

The two spellings’ coexistence – some call it competition – is not unusual: witness appendixes and appendices, formulas and formulae, millenniums and millennia, referendums and referenda, stadiums and stadia, and thesauruses and thesauri, all used regularly. Neither one in any pair has ousted the other, though some eventually will. Millennia overtook its rival in the 1930s and is likely to maintain its supremacy.

There are no hard and fast rules about which plural to use and when. In certain cases the Latin is more formal or even affected, but not predictably so. Occasionally the two spellings differentiate in meaning. For example, stigmata normally implies a religious context, while stigmas is the general-purpose plural. Some authorities advise limiting mediums to spiritualists and using media for all other senses of the word, but usage varies.

Certain Latin plurals, such as minutiae (“small or unimportant details”) never became very common in the singular, so *minutias didn’t get a chance to develop as a legitimate variant. Other Latin plurals transform into English singulars, such as agenda, stamina, and data (which is both singular and plural). When did you last hear of someone setting an agendum?

Similarly, the Italian plurals graffiti and paparazzi are widely treated as singular in English, while singular phenomena and fora are edging along this path but are still non-standard, at least in formal writing. Whether “a phenomena” becomes as generally acceptable as “an agenda” depends on the people using the language – the unofficial fora who collectively engineer common usage.

Comments (21)
  • Stan:
    I find myself sticking to Latin plurals in most cases. A choice of pluralization often boils down to what we learned in school. Logically, English pluralization would seem the way to go, but when did logic ever rule the day?

    Posted by marc leavitt on 8th July, 2013
  • I think another reason for the paucity of plural “minutias” is that quite a few people think “minutia” is already plural. As in this recent NYT profile of Jimmy Wales: “This global collection of grass-roots volunteers makes for a collectively brilliant creation, but it can also lead to online hysteria and “edit wars” over minutia like how to categorize hummus.”

    Posted by Jan Freeman on 8th July, 2013
  • Marc: When indeed. We might reasonably expect Latin plurals to fade over time, but it just doesn’t reliably happen. We have a clear preference for millennia over millenniums, for example, one factor of which may be that it’s simply easier to say.

    Posted by Stan on 8th July, 2013
  • Jan: I’m sure you’re right – a search for “these minutia” on Google Books returns hundreds of examples. Interpreting minutia as plural is an understandable mistake, but it oughtn’t to slip past an editor.

    Posted by Stan on 8th July, 2013
  • It’s intriguing that, as you say Stan, there don’t seem to be any clear rules as to what happens in these cases. Criteria (strictly speaking a Greek plural) is now sometimes used as a singular noun, as in this corpus line: ‘Our selection criteria is based upon quality and style’. This could arise because the plural form is so much more familiar than the singular criterion (which is about one-tenth as frequent) – reflecting the fact that criteria (like peas) tend to be talked about in the plural. I’m not a fan of data being used as a plural noun (as in ‘these data are interesting’) and the Macmillan entry records data as an uncountable noun. The arch-pedant Nevile Gwynne idolizes the even more pedantic Simon Heffer but is disappointed that he “can find no reference [in Heffer’s book] to the grossly illiterate but almost universal ‘per capita’ in place of the correct ‘per caput’”. What anguish this must cause him!

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 9th July, 2013
  • Michael: Criteria is an interesting example, which I left out only because it’s Greek. I use the traditional singular criterion, but I see singular criteria quite often and agree with you that it’s probably popular because the ‘proper’ singular is so relatively uncommon. Case in point: a linguistics article I read this morning used plural criteria once and then singular criteria three times. I suspect contagion also plays a part: the more these usages appear, the more likely they are to be picked up by others.
    I don’t mind plural data, but then I was exposed to it quite a lot when studying science. Both sound normal to me, so long as usage is internally consistent and contextually appropriate.

    Posted by Stan on 9th July, 2013
  • If anything is wrong with per capita, it is the preposition rather than the plural. It means “by the heads”, and originally applied to a method of allocating the property of someone who dies without a will among his descendants, namely that they all get the same amount. This use of per is post-classical; classical Latin would have used in capita, and we find one English use of that phrase from the 17th century, but per capita is otherwise universal. Certainly dividing property per caput makes no sense: whose head would that be?

    You could argue that per caput income or the like makes more sense, given that in most noun-noun compounds the first noun is singular (house mice are so called even though they don’t all live in the same house, e.g.) But this rule has never been applied to irregular plurals, and per caput is hopelessly unidiomatic.

    Posted by John Cowan on 10th July, 2013
  • I’ve been intrigued by the many uses of medium/media often dependent on context. For example, when referring to communications media, the plural form is almost always used in a singular sense: “The media is responsible.” That appears true even when only one medium (e.g., television) is referenced. In these cases, television becomes “the media” of interest. But when my listserv arrives from an art supplies distributor, it refers to a list of “mediums” for sale, and I can’t recall ever seeing “media” used in this context.

    Posted by Virginia Simmon on 10th July, 2013
  • Michael: You say that the use of ‘criteria’ as a singular noun ‘could arise because the plural form is so much more familiar than the singular ‘criterion’ … reflecting the fact that criteria tend to be talked about in the plural’. Stan agrees that singular ‘criteria’ is probably popular because the ‘proper’ singular is so relatively uncommon. I agree with the argument in general, but am a bit wary of saying that something is popular BECAUSE something else is uncommon; basically this is the same as saying that x is frequent because y is infrequent. It’s the ‘because’ that I’m objecting to. It’s a real-world fact that there tends to be more than one criterion and more than one pea, as you say, but this doesn’t mean that if someone puts a pea on my plate I will say ‘nice peas’, on the grounds that one pea is not a standard serving. The point is surely that like Peter Cook we just don’t have the Latin. Fortunately we don’t need the Latin any more, even for the judgin’, so singular ‘criteria’ may well catch on, and good luck to it.

    Posted by Gill on 10th July, 2013
  • John: A useful and interesting note; thank you.

    Virginia: And yet mixed media, not mixed mediums, is the conventional term. Given how recently and quickly media such as television and internet have infiltrated culture, it’s understandable how much usage variation exists.

    Gill: I’d say singular criteria has already caught on to a considerable extent, though I’m still resisting it.

    Posted by Stan on 10th July, 2013
  • A pedantic little footnote on “agenda”. It is of course plural because it means “thingS to be done” and every agenda contains a list.

    Posted by Ian Watson on 25th July, 2013
  • Ian: Agenda was once plural, but it is now far more often singular in Standard English, and accordingly has its own plural form agendas. I imagine people think of agenda as similar to plan or schedule, both of which can also mean things to be done but are resolutely singular.

    Posted by Stan on 25th July, 2013
  • Yes, you’re right, Stan. Sorry; what I meant to say was that the IDEA behind the Latin plural “agenda” was a list of thingS to be done – for my generation primarily at a meeting – but of course it has long been grammatically singular. (“The agenda of last month’s meeting hasn’t been typed up yet.”) Now that it has come to mean someone’s – perhaps disguised – “game plan” (“He has his own agenda.”), the “agendas” plural seems to have become more common.

    Posted by Ian Watson on 26th July, 2013
  • Ian: Ah yes, of course. I interpreted your earlier comment as a claim that agenda was still (or should still be) plural. But I see now we’re in full agreement.

    Posted by Stan on 26th July, 2013
  • That’s a very good point, Ian. I just checked some corpus data for the plural ‘agendas’ and a clear majority referred to the second meaning you mention (like ‘game plan’). It often seems to go with words like ‘differing’, ‘competing’ and ‘conflicting’, as in this example:’This is key to the successful functioning of a forum which comprises people with widely differing agendas’.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 26th July, 2013
  • Different, differing, competing and conflicting agendas are generally metaphorical, as Michael points out. So are hidden agendas. But not always …..
    At a meeting I attended a few years ago, we got to ‘any other business’ and I said “Hey, hang on, what about item 6?” Someone else said “We discussed that – don’t you remember?” Well, no, I didn’t; we certainly hadn’t discussed what I could see as point 6 on my copy of the agenda, and it became apparent that there were *literally* two different agendas for the meeting. The majority had been given one version and a minority, including me, a different one. The discrepancy was, I suppose, the result of incompetence, rather than an attempt to keep the real agenda hidden from some of the participants ….. probably, though who knows?

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 27th July, 2013
  • Given that a few have mentioned that criterion is Greek rather than Latin, I feel compelled to point out that so is phenomenon (< φαίνω ‘display’).

    Reanalysis of these plurals as singulars is quite common among my students, and I often use it as the basis for my tirade on why plain-but-standard beats pompous-but-solecistic any day of the week.

    Posted by Alon on 5th August, 2013
  • Another Latin plural that sometimes causes confusion is ‘bacteria’. The Guardian newspaper recently issued a correction after referring to ‘a bacteria’ (instead of ‘a bacterium’) in an editorial.

    Since peas have been mentioned in a couple of previous comments, I’ll just tell/remind people that ‘pea’ is apparently a back-formation from ‘pease’, which was originally singular/uncountable but was later taken to be a plural form because it sounds like one.

    Posted by Elizabeth Manning on 6th August, 2013
  • Alon: Phenomenon is originally Greek, yes, but English took it from Late Latin. Plain-but-standard is my general preference too, but there isn’t a clear moment when a usage becomes standard, and what’s pompous in one context, or in one reader’s mind, might not be in another/’s.

    Elizabeth: Thank you; I didn’t see that correction. Singular bacteria in the sense “a strain/variety of bacteria” has appeared in journalism and other non-academic registers for decades. I wouldn’t have thought it warranted an apology, though it does contravene the Guardian’s style guide. I studied microbiology and tend to stick to the more formally correct forms, but the looser usage doesn’t bother me at all.

    Posted by Stan on 11th August, 2013
  • Data uncountable? – the confusion among people generally is shown by the mixed use of singular and plural verbs forms – which is more common, the data show or the data shows? And then of course there’s “datum point” – the only use of the true singular that I am familiar with.

    Posted by Elliott Cooper on 25th September, 2013
  • Elliott: I see datum occasionally in technical texts I’m editing, for example in surveying, cartography, and geodesy. But in general usage it’s very rare.

    Posted by Stan on 26th September, 2013
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