Thursday, May 25, 2006

On Endings: Busses to -buses; Bye to that Silly-bi

--Some of you may have read this piece in another setting. I first shared it as a memo/mission-statement with the English dept. at Andrews University. I later posted it on my web site. I'm trying to streamline that space and it better befits the flaunty function of this forum - please forgive me if you remember it and don't like seeing it again.--

Since almost every class is made up of more than one student it is probable that we who teach have all had the opportunity to talk about both the single syllabus and its plural. Let’s be honest here. How many of us have said something like “Now we’ll take a look at our syllabi” or “I’ve put the syllabi on the desk; make sure you pick one up” as our classes began?

The word syllabus has a special place in academe because of its specific meaning and its resemblance to an original Latin word. And of course lovers of language the department members everywhere are going to do everything possible to hail and welcome the historic echoes of all words. Or at least those of us who try shamelessly to appear sagacious do so. There is a tendency then to take the –us ending and subject it to archaic and non-English grammar. By granting this word its strong Latinization we say “Yes I am aware of what happened before I was born…nay before English was born!”

And we’re mistaken if we do so.

This is neither to argue against strong declensions nor to argue that only recent grammatical rules should apply to our inflections. This is to take specific issue with our plural form of the word syllabus. Sure, some Latin words ending in –us were sometimes pluralized with the –i declension; but there was no form syllabi for us to take as a help meet to syllabus, because syllabus was not originally a Latin word ending in –us. The word as we know it came from the Modern Latin misreading of the Latin sittybas which is itself the accusative plural of sittyba [from the Greek sittuba – label]. This leads my untaught (and therefore wandering) eye to identify it as being already the first feminine declension of the plural.

Since our word syllabus is based on an already pluralized form of another word it makes no sense to reach back into that bag of historical grammar and pull out a rule from then for application to our word today. There is no –us to –i pluralization in English except in an attempt to remain faithful to the direct ancestry of a Latin word.

If we acknowledge the true history of syllabus we will find ourselves saying syllabuses for its plural. Some in their desire to correct us and appear more learned will try to beseech then bully us into accuracy by insisting that we say syllabi. We now know enough to share a little dangerous learning with them.

If all else fails you might assume that they are prescriptivists and so direct them to the Oxford English, Webster’s New World, Funk & Wagnalls, and the American Heritage dictionaries. Take a look at too. They all list -es as the preferred plural ending.

Merriam Webster lists –i first. I’ve never liked Merriam Webster.

p.s. Octopus comes from Greek so the plural would be either octopuses or octopodes. Octopi has wriggled its way into common usage and its tentacles are holding firm. I guess we have to choose our battles.

1 comment:

  1. I first read about octopodes in Gregg Easterbrooks football column Tuesday Morning Quarterback. They were brought up in a discussion of the Flying Elvii (Easterbrook's nickname for the Patriots based on their helmet logo).


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