Jonathon Owen is a copy editor and also student of grammars who "holds the paradoxical view that it"s possible to be a prescriptivist and descriptivist simultaneously." Here, he looks in ~ how human being can acquire tripped up on words through unusual plural forms like phenomena.

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Latin and Greek plurals deserve to be tricky for English speakers. Many readers probably know that the many of phenomenon is phenomena, yet it"s not uncommon to hear phenomena — and likewise inflected words choose criteria — treated as singulars themselves, occasionally with consistent plurals choose phenomenas developed from them.

It"s basic to dismiss together errors as the product of contemporary ignorance — civilization these days simply don"t understand their Latin and also Greek declensions choose they provided to — but these variant develops have existed virtually since these words were very first borrowed right into English. The Oxford English Dictionary has actually citations for plural phenomenas date to 1635 and also singular phenomena date to 1708, and many that these uses come native scientists and also other academics who were well versed in Greek and also Latin.

What gives? room these plurals yes, really so complicated that even classically educated scholars couldn"t gain it right, let alone laypeople today? Well, in a way, yes. It"s not simply that they"re irregular. Castle come indigenous a lot more complex system that inflection than English speakers are supplied to. Latin and also Greek had sophisticated systems of inflectional endings to note not simply grammatical number but gender and case.

English tho marks grammar number, usually by simply including the plural -s finishing to the stem the a word, yet we no longer have actually grammatical gender, and case marking is minimal to the personal pronouns and also who, which have various forms relying on their syntactic and also semantic duty in the sentence: for example, I for subjects, me for objects, and also my because that possessives.

Ancient Greek, however, significant every word through a various ending relying on its case and number. Rather than simply tacking on a many ending, you had to know different endings for every feasible combination. Phenomenon had actually only three separate cases, however that still provides six possible endings because that every mix of case and also number. The stem of words is actually phenomen-, through -on gift the finishing for the nominative singular and -a the please select candidate plural. Over there were four other end for different combinations that case and also number, but we only obtained the please select candidate forms.

In a nutshell, I think this is why English speakers battle so lot with Latin and also Greek plurals. Us aren"t provided to a mechanism that requires not simply an finishing to mark plurals yet a different and unrelated finishing to note singulars. Pluralizing Latin and Greek words calls for us to an initial remove one ending and then connect another, a procedure which we"re just not accustomed to.

To make matters worse, many of these words almost sound as if the plural has actually had component of the singular ending taken away rather of included on or replaced. In part pronunciations, the only difference in between phenomenon and phenomena is the n at the end of the former. Plenty of Latin plurals in English room the same; because that example, stadia sounds choose the -m has been deleted from stadium.

Apparently deleting something from a many to make a singular (at least in together if not in spelling) is odd, and not just due to the fact that it"s different from the method English walk it. The linguist Joseph Greenberg propose forty-five language universals based on observations of thirty different languages, some of which were completely unrelated. One of them was, “There is no language in i beg your pardon the many does not have actually some nonzeroallomorphs, whereas there room languages in which the singular is expressed just by zero.” What this rather inscrutable statement way is that while there room some languages the leave the singular there was no sign all the time, and there room some that mark both plural and also singular at least some the the time, there are none that constantly leave the plural unmarked.

Stated an ext broadly, it"s quite unusual for a plural to be developed by individually something from a singular, despite there are occasional examples. Therefore not just are the Greek and Latin inflectional systems extremely unlike the English mechanism for pluralization, yet some that these develops are actually typologically unexplained inasmuch as the singular forms show up to be derived from plurals.

So if it"s easy to chalk up these mistakes to straightforward ignorance, ns think the actual reason is much an ext interesting. For four hundred years, English speakers have been struggling to adapt some really foreign grammar come fit ours language. We"ve been torn between the urge to respect the original Latin and Greek grammar and the urge to regularize some odd piece of the language that don"t seem come behave the means they should.

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Rather than just decry intake errors, I find that they regularly tell us something interesting about the means language works, and that"s a far an ext interesting phenomenon.


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Jonathon Owen is a copy editor and book designer v a master"s degree in linguistics from Brigham Young University. His thesis explores the function of copyediting in regulation English usage, and he holds the paradoxical watch that it"s feasible to be a prescriptivist and also descriptivist simultaneously. He writes about usage, editing, and also linguistics in ~ arrantpedantry.com, and he likewise writes a pillar on grammar because that Copyediting newsletter. In his cost-free time that likes to play Scrabble and also design word-nerdy t-shirts. You deserve to follow him on Twitter at