04 May 2014

Making Plurals with -i

Michael poingnantly corrects anyone he ever hears say the word "syllabi."  We were talking on the phone (I got a fancy new bluetooth radio in my car for Christmas--thanks honey!) as I was driving home and he told me the story of how he had corrected a classmate that day.  Outraged, he says to me, "It´s ´syllabuses.´  Why would anyone say ´syllabi´?"  I sheepishly told him maybe they say it because that´s what everyone else says.  "Like who?" he asks.  Everyone I´ve ever heard, I guess.

The rule is simple enough.  Words of Greek origin are made plural with -es and words of Latin origin are made plural with -i.  For example, octopuses, cacti.  But is ´syllabus´ Greek or Latin?!

And so while I´m driving I look it up in the Online Etymology Dictonary.  I found the story so funny, I´ve decided to share it here.  The confusion is all based on a mistake!

syllabus (n.) 
1650s, "table of contents of a series of lectures, etc.," from Late Latin syllabus "list," ultimately a misreading of Greek sittybos "parchment label, table of contents," of unknown origin. The misprint appeared in a 15c. edition of Cicero's "Ad Atticum" (see OED). Had it been a real word, the proper plural would be syllabi.

But it wasn´t a real word, so the proper plural* is, in fact, syllabuses!

*Well, that depends on if you´re a descriptivist or prescriptivist.  Language is evolving and in time, the common vernacular becomes what is correct blah blah blah.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Hall said:

Interesting detective work, Chela! But I would closely check the OED itself to see how the word has evolved.

Please remind Michael that everyone in academia (which is the only place one finds a "syllabus") uses "syllabi" as the plural. It doesn't matter whether or not he is "right." Three million teachers can't be wrong. It may be time for him to find another linguistic windmill to tilt against.