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Pluralising foreign nouns in English

Subordination in English

My last column x-rayed some complications with the pluralisation system of English. Such complications are inevitable because the noun is one of the word classes in the open-class items; that is, it admits new words almost every time.

Again, being the most geographically dispersed language, the English language tries to preserve the pluralisation system of some of the borrowed words. This makes it difficult to have concise rules of pluralisation in English. Against this backdrop, this piece will further explore the pluralisation system of English, especially with regard to foreign nouns.

To begin with, some foreign plurals are mainly rendered as regular plurals. However, when they are used as technical words of professional fields, they take the irregular pluralisation while the regular plurals indicate general usages.

Formula (singular noun)

Formulas (general usage)

Formulae (science)

Antenna (singular noun)

Antennas (general usage; electronic)

Antennae (biology).

Bugs use their antennas to detect blood heat (incorrect).

Bugs use their antennae to detect blood heat (correct).

The electrician had to get more antennas for the hotel rooms (correct).

Next, nouns that end in “-us” such as bonus, cactus, alumnus are also prone to confusion. This is because they can be pluralised in three different ways. For some of these words such as bonus, campus, virus, circus, they are pluralised by the addition of “-es”.

Thus, we have bonuses, campuses, viruses and circuses respectively. Some other words in this category attract only the foreign plural. Hence, the pluralisation of such words, using “-es”, generates ungrammatical forms. Some of such words are alumnus, bacillus, stimulus and locus. The plural forms of these words are alumni, bacilli, stimuli and loci respectively.

The last set of words in this category can admit both the regular pluralisation (-es) and the foreign plural forms. In this category are: cactus, focus, fungus, nucleus, radius, terminus and syllabus. Correspondingly, these words can be pluralised as cacti/cactuses, foci/focuses, fungi/funguses, nuclei/nucleuses, radii/radiuses, termini/terminuses, syllabi/syllabuses.

Some alumnuses of the University of Ibadan have arrived (incorrect).

Some alumni of the University of Ibadan have arrived (correct).

They were instructed to work with these syllabuses/syllabi (correct).

Another category of foreign nouns encompasses those that end in “-um” like album, curriculum, aquarium and so on. These words are mainly of Latin origin. Like the ones that end in “-us”, these nouns can be pluralised in three ways, too.

Some attract the regular pluralisation with the addition of “-s”. They are album, museum, chrysanthemum which are respectively pluralised as albums, museums and chrysanthemums. Next, there are a number of them that can attract both the regular and irregular plurals, including forum, stadium, honorarium, auditorium, ultimatum, aquarium, memorandum, symposium.

Thus, they can be pluralised as stadiums/stadia, honorariums/honoraria, auditoriums/auditoria, ultimatums/ultimata, aquariums/aquaria, memorandums/memoranda and symposiums/symposia. Some of the nouns in this category, which attract the irregular plural forms, are bacterium, corrigendum, ovum, stratum. They are pluralised as bacteria, corrigenda, ova and strata, correspondingly.

The pandemic affected people across different social stratums (incorrect).

The pandemic affected people across different social strata (correct).

Honorariums/honoraria were given to the guest speakers (correct).

Away from that, there are few French nouns ending in “-e(a)u” that can be pluralised by the addition of “-s” or the French “-x”:

Adieu/adieus/adieux

Bureau/bureaus/bureaux

Plateau/plateaus/plateux

She knows about some employment bureaus/bureaux in the UK (correct).

Nonetheless, take note that the plural form of “bureau de change”, a place where you can, for instance, change dollars for/into naira (not “change dollars to naira”) is “bureaux de change”, as in:

Three bureaus de change are located close to my mother’s office (incorrect).

Three bureaux de change are located close to my mother’s office (correct).

Another interesting set of French nouns are the ones that have the same spellings for the singular and plural forms, but with the singular nouns being pronounced with final vowel sounds and the plural nouns being articulated with the regular /z/ sound. Examples are chamois, chassis, corps, faux pas, patois.

Read also: Plurals in English

Italian nouns that end in “-o” also deserve attention. Some are pluralised as regular nouns; a good example is piano/pianos. Some others such as tempo, soprano, solo, virtuoso, libretto can take both forms, as seen below:

Tempo/tempos/tempi

Soprano/sopranos/soprani

Solo/solos/soli

Virtuoso/virtuosos/virtuosi

Libretto/librettos/libretti

Bob and Tim are bass guitar virtuosos/virtuosi (correct).

A number of Italian nouns are treated as uncountable nouns. They include graffiti, spaghetti and confetti. They do not have singular forms and are not used in the singular sense, as in:

Chelsea were showered with confettis after their Premier League victory (incorrect).

Chelsea were showered with confetti after their Premier League victory (correct).

Finally, Hebrew nouns are also pluralised in both the regular and irregular ways. The irregular form attracts “-im”. An example of a Hebrew noun that attracts the irregular form is kibbutz, and its plural is kibbutzim. Occasionally, too, it is pluralised by adding “-es” thus: “kibbutzes”. Cherub and seraph are other examples which may take the regular or irregular plural forms:

Cherub/cherubs/cherubim

Seraph/seraphs/seraphim

The artwork depicts four cherubs/cherubim (correct).

The discussion above confirms that English has a wide lexicon and has, indeed, extended its influence to virtually all parts of the world. This piece does not only serve as an exposure to how foreign nouns are pluralised, but also enlightens the readership on the etymology of some English words.

(c) Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (Dr GAB)

Department of English,

Lagos State University