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Q and A on Latin Plurals, Media English, and Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. In this week’s Q and A, you will find answers to questions on problematic plural forms of Latin nouns tha...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In this week’s Q and A, you will find answers to questions on problematic plural forms of Latin nouns that have been “imported” into English. I have also answered other usage and grammar questions. Enjoy.

Your answer to the question about “media” being the plural of “medium” and “agenda” being the plural of the now outdated “agendum” was very enlightening. It got me thinking about how many plurals and singular nouns we mess up every day. Can you highlight other plurals and singulars we often mess up?

There are several, but I will mention only the most prominent. First, it’d help to make it clear that you are talking about Latin singular and plural nouns. As you will see in the examples below, while the plural forms of some Latin nouns have been anglicized, others retain their original forms, and grammarians don’t always agree on when it’s acceptable to anglicize the plural forms of Latin nouns.

Take the word “syllabus,” for example. Some people anglicize its plural form to “syllabuses.” But some pedants insist that the word’s original Latin plural (i.e., syllabi) is the only acceptable plural form. I’d say both plurals are acceptable. My sense, though, is that many US universities prefer “syllabi” to “syllabuses.”

Your question is: what other Latin singular and plural nouns do people habitually mix up? Well, “criteria” is one of them. It’s the plural of “criterion,” but it’s usual for people to use it as if it's a singular noun. They say something like: “the only criteria to succeed in life IS hard work.” Semantic purists would insist that the sentence should be rephrased either to “the only criterion to succeed in life is hard work” or “the criteria to succeed in life ARE hard work and luck” since “criterion” is the singular form of “criteria.” “Criterias” is universally condemned as illiterate.

Another problematic Latin noun is “forum.” While some people insist that its plural must be “fora” (its original Latin plural), others anglicize its plural to “forums.” My own preference is “forums.” “Fora” sounds dated, pedantic, and pretentious. It turns out, too, that the Oxford English Dictionary prefers “forums” to “fora.” Microsoft Word, following OED’s lead, does not recognize “fora” as an English word.

The battle over “data” has been rested now. It used to be argued that “data” was the plural of “datum” (which it is in Latin), and that one couldn’t use “data” as a singular noun. So it was considered bad grammar to say “the data IS convincing.” Grammarians of old insisted that the sentence should either be reworded to “the data ARE convincing” or “the datum IS convincing.” But modern English usage in both the United States and the UK has abandoned “datum,” and it’s now perfectly permissible to use “data” as a singular noun. Many people use the phrase “sets of data” to form the plural of “data.”

In the Q and A you referred to, I talked about “agenda” being the plural of “agendum” in Latin. What I didn’t remember to mention is that “agendas” is now considered an acceptable plural of agenda, which is a plural noun in Latin. I also didn’t mention that although “medium” is the singular form of “media” in Latin (and in English), “mediums” can be used as a plural form, especially when reference is made to spiritualists who claim to be able to serve as intercessors between the dead and the living.

I know this all sounds confusing and arbitrary. I will dedicate an entire column on Latin singulars and plurals in the coming weeks.

I stumbled upon some of your Q & A on correct grammar usage recently and I was highly delighted. Please, I have many questions but I'll ask only two now. 1. Is it correct to say quiz competition or just quiz? 2. Which of these expressions is correct: “the vehicle is full” or “the vehicle is filled”?  

Just “quiz” would do. If a quiz is, as the Oxford Dictionary of English defines it, “a test of knowledge, especially as a competition between individuals or teams as a form of entertainment,” then the addition of “competition” to “quiz” is unnecessary, although I won’t say it’s grammatically wrong since “quiz” sometimes functions as a modifier. When I searched “quiz competition” on the British National Corpus, the definitive record of contemporary written and spoken British English, I found only six matches. I discovered that the phrase is particularly popular in former British colonies and the Philippines. The usual phrase that modern British English speakers use is “quiz show.” Note, however, that in American English quiz isn’t generally understood as a competition for entertainment. It’s understood as a short, informal exam.

2. "The vehicle is full" is more grammatical than the "the vehicle is filled." When "filled" is used as an adjective, such as in your example, it's often followed by the preposition "with." So if you want to use "filled" in your example, it would be better to recast the sentence as: "the vehicle is filled with people."

A couple of days back, I read a feature article in the Washington Post titled “Bringing Home Dad.” A son was pleading for the release of his father that was taken hostage somewhere in Iran. I'm a bit confused about that title. I thought in our English usage, the title would have been written: “Bringing Dad Home.” What’s your take on that?

You're right that it's an awkward and unusual construction. I can tell you that it's unusual even to native-speaker ears, although it's not grammatically wrong. I asked many of my American friends, who are grammar nerds, if “bring home dad” makes sense to them. They all said it’s an ungainly phraseology. My own guess is that the headline writer was being stylistically experimental based on idiomatic expressions like "bringing home the bacon," which means to provide food for the family. Or, perhaps, he was trying to capture child-speak.

Is there a word like sendforth?

I have written about this in two previous articles. Since many people have asked me this same question the in the past few weeks, I thought I should reproduce my response. “Sendforth” is a uniquely Nigerian English expression that is often used in place of the Standard English “send-off,” that is, an organized expression of goodwill for people who are about to leave us for a new place or for a new venture. This expression, which seems to have originated as a coinage by Nigerian born-again Christians, would certainly make no sense to many Americans and Britons. Its equivalent in standard British and American English is, as I said earlier, “send-off” (note that it is NOT “send-off party” as some Nigerians are wont to say because “send-off” is a noun, not an adjective) or “farewell celebration” or, rarely, “bon voyage.” Americans also call it a “leaving party.”

I guess Nigerians coined the expression “send-forth party” because “send-off” seems   distant, even hostile. The adverb “forth” appears to Nigerians to convey a connotation of forward motion, of advancement, while “off” strikes them as suggesting departure with no expectation of return. So Nigerians think that to say they “send people off” suggests that they derive perverse pleasure in people’s departure from them But linguists would call this reasoning naïve, if not downright ignorant, because the standard definition of an idiom—which is what this phrase is— is that it is an expression whose meaning cannot be guessed from the meanings of the individual words that constitute it.

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