Grammar Rules: Plurals an Octopus Couldn’t Handle

5 Apr

Have you ever wondered what the actual plural of octopus is? The answer? It depends. Don’t you hate that? Sometimes it is just too much to ask for a simple answer. English has never prided itself on its simplicity, and since English has been affected by many other languages as well, nothing is simple anymore.

Kory Stamper has already tackled this specific issue beautifully in her YouTube video from Merriam-Webster, but it still seems to be a gray area for most people. To recap her video in short form, octopuses is correct because when we take a word from a foreign language into English, we give it an English ending. Octopi is correct because grammarians, during a movement to simplify English, took a large number of words with “us” endings, including octopus, and gave them the Latin plural “I”. The only problem? Octopus isn’t Latin. It is Greek, which brings us to our last plural, octopodes, which is correct since it is a Greek word, so we give it the Greek ending.

Octopus isn’t the only word that has been confused when it comes to pluralization. Cactus now has two proper plurals as well. Cactuses and cacti are both technically correct forms. Even worse than this, Platypus has four debatable plural forms.

Platypus has the same issue that octopus had, in that it is a Greek word, but was given the Latin ending, becoming platypi. If it were given its proper Greek ending, it would become platypodes. Despite how cool this word sounds, it is basically completely unused. Many people drop the ending all together and use platypus as the singular and the plural in the same way that sheep is the plural of sheep. Add on the fourth ending, the English one, and we have platypuses, the most commonly used, at least in the United States.

So, what are we supposed to glean from this information? Only that English is a very confusing language. Despite its confusing nature, however, it is one of the most widely used languages in the world.  One of the reasons that some languages die off, while others thrive is because of their flexibility. The less a language allows itself to change, the quicker it will die off and become a dead language.

The more the language changes, the more it mirrors how people are themselves. We are a constantly changing society and in order for us to keep up with the world around us, our language must be flexible enough to incorporate any new changes that become necessary to be able to clearly and effectively express ourselves.

-Brian

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