Reason #4857 why I love Northwestern

In Introduction to Macroeconomics today:

Random student raises his hand.

“Excuse me, could I get a copy of one of the syllabuses?”

Every single person in the room (it’s a 200-person class) rolls his or her eyes and grumbles, “Syllabi.”

It wasn’t like the person next to me just said it. It was probably everyone in the room. The room filled with a roar of the proper English pluralization.

(Though, upon further investigation, I learned from Dictionary.com that “syllabuses” is also acceptable. And, when I went to spell-check this entry, it didn’t recognize “syllabi” as a word. Weird. But I won’t tell if you won’t.)

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11 thoughts on “Reason #4857 why I love Northwestern

  1. Ah but if you noticed at http://www.dictionary.com syllabi has its own entry whereas syllabuses is merely attatched to syllubus. That and your Word is weird because mine definately recognized syllabi. You away message just seemed so desperate I had to reply.

    Beth

  2. Haha. Well it was Livejournal that didn’t recognize “syllabi.”

    But don’t get me wrong–I was one of the people who said “syllabi,” too.

  3. After having done research on plural forms of words long ago, I have to contribute my expertise.

    Firstly, “us” in general: It is a natural American (read: uneducated) response to assume that the plural form of any noun with the form ‘root+us’ should be ‘root+i.’ However, this is highly incorrect.
    Reason 1: Greek. Platypus and Octopus, for example, both end in “us” and therefore, we naturally say “Platypi” or “Octopi.” However, neither word is Latin and is in fact Greek, where the root is actually Platy and Octo, not Platyp or Octop. Pus is the ending, and the proper plural is ‘root+podes’ – that is, platypodes and octopodes.
    Reason 2: Incorrect Latin pluralization. Even for words that are indeed Latin, the plural “i” is only used in certain cases, depending on the grammar of the sentence. Unfortunately, I am not versed in Latin, but I do know that the word cactus, depending on its use, could have multiple plurals, including cacta, cacti, cactuum, and maybe even other possibilities.

    Secondly, the practice of hypercorrection: You often tell the joke of the man who goes to Harvard asking “where can I find the library at?” who is then corrected for his choice of preposition to end his sentence. Although the change in a sentence to prevent this blunder is often clumsy, it is acceptable practice in our language. (For example, we will allow Churchill’s classic “this is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put,” even though it sounds ridiculous to the ear.) However, hypercorrection in other areas is not acceptable even in a language as ridiculous as English. One of these areas is the plural form of words, and in fact, when taught, a lesson on hypercorrection often contains the word ‘syllabus’ due to its wide use. Other examples are status (statuses, not stati), rebus (which is actually already plural of ‘res’ – Latin for ‘thing’), census (censuses, not censi), virus (viruses, not the oft seen virii or viri), and the fun caucus (caucuses, not cauci, which sounds very amusing). In fact, with the exception of the Algonquin-originated caucus, all of those examples are indeed Latin, yet are not pluralized the way we have been taught.

    It’s interesting to me that many people will often jump on someone for saying something like “syllabuses,” when they themselves will say “Who are you going to the dance with?” or “Between you and I…” The next time someone says “syllabuses,” instead of attacking him, applaud his intelligence (even if accidental) and his fight against hypercorrection.

    In reality, no ‘root-i’ word should be in our language, but a few have made it through. Let’s try not to bastardize our poor language by adding words that aren’t even pluralized that way in their native language.

    -Nathan

  4. I was going to give a correction quite like this one.

    But instead, I’ll just say “this is why you should all take Latin.”

    Also, there is no such word as cacta, and cactum is singular, not plural. The plurals of cactus are:
    cacti
    cactorum
    cactis
    cactos
    cactis.

  5. After cavorting with Zack today about this same topic, I confirmed that root+a is indeed a possibility, in the second declension for neutral nouns, nominative, nominative, vocative, and accusative. I have no idea what that means, due to my lack of latin knowledge. (But I imagine accusative would be like “They are cactuses!” What a funny idea.) Of course, I would imagine that cactus is probably not neutral, but it was an example of the possibilities for words ending in ‘us.’

    As for cactum, I never suggested it was plural. I suggested ‘root+uum’, which corresponds to the fourth declension genitive. Again, I don’t know what that means – I’m only passing on information.

    -Nathan

  6. While it may be true that, if we applied proper Greek or Latin grammar, the “i” is not the correct plural form, we’re not speaking Greek or Latin, we’re speaking English! And yes, most of our words have roots in other languages, but we’ve changed them so much that we can’t refer to their languages of origin to find out what their grammatical properties are. With the case of “syllabuses” and “syllabi”, it’s probably a case where either one is technically correct (Word recognizes both), but “syllabi” just sounds better and less awkward.

  7. Microsoft Word is hardly a gold standard by which we should measure our language. “Syllabi” is incorrect. As you said, we speak English, and this is a discussion of English. By that measure, “Cacti” or any other similar term is also incorrect. However, they’ve managed to pass into our language. Syllabi has not yet done so, because it’s not correct.

    As a rule, I use the English for all terms. Cactus times two equals cactuses.

  8. English also is known for notoriously irregular pluralizations… thus, there are some words that are pluralized with an i, even though that’s not the usual English pattern. If you don’t like Microsoft Word, the Oxford English Dictionary also says that both “syllabi” and “syllabuses” are acceptable pluralizations. The same is true for “hippopotamuses” and “hippopotami.” “Cacti”, however, is not correct. So basically, typical of English, there’s no universally applicable rule; “correct” or “incorrect” is specific to the particular word.

  9. To be completely honest, I’m sick of this discussion. However, I reject the OED for the simple reason that I am American and not British. Although the OED has made long strides, (such as using the z instead of s for “ize” – “Globalize,” for example) it still has a long way to go.

    The real question in this issue is that of your identity. Who are you, and why do you refuse to reveal yourself? (If you post anonymously, at least have the decency to sign your name.)

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