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Many Latin words in English have both Latin-style plurals and English-style plurals:

  • referendum – referendums, referenda.
  • minimum – minimums, minima.
  • gymnasium – gymnasiums, gymnasia.
  • aquarium – aquariums, aquaria.
  • amoeba – amoebas, amoebae.
  • antenna – antennas, antennae.
  • formula – formulas, formulae.
  • index – indexes, indices.
  • appendix – appendixes, appendices.

In technical language, generally, Latin-style is the only proper form of Latin plurals.

In all other contexts where both Latin-style and English-style are proper, which style of Latin plurals should I use?

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Language, whether spoken or written, should be transparent. By this I mean that the listener or reader should not be distracted from focussing on the idea being communicated. If a grammatical construction no matter how "correct" is a distraction from the underlying message then, to paraphrase a phrase often misattributed to Churchill, it is a construction up with which I will not put. –  user6925 Apr 4 '11 at 23:54
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@Alexander: and therefore your answer is... –  nico Apr 15 '11 at 20:57
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7 Answers

In general, you can look to overall usage to get an idea of which to use. Searches of COHA, COCA, and the Google Books Ngram Viewer are great sources of data for that. However, one thing to consider is that for many of these words, I would personally use both of the plurals in different situations. So consider using a context search on COCA for perspective when doing research.

  • For example, I would speak of indices of economic decline, but of tracking major market indexes. Similarly, array indices but database indexes.

  • I would use minima in a mathematical context, but I would never speak of needing to carry cash because all the restaurants have $10 minima for using credit cards. I would speak of “$10 minimums

  • I would refer to a table of formulae in a math textbook but talk disparagingly of those looking for “magic formulas and shortcuts”.

  • A doctor who has performed many appendectomies I would say has removed many appendixes, but the last third of my calculus textbook consisted of nothing of appendices containing tables of integrals and values of trigonometric functions.

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This answer perfectly captures the problem. There is no formula you can apply here. You have to develop a familiarity of what the normal usage is for a given context. "Curricula," for example, as a standard conversational plural is probably going to be surpassed by "curriculums" in the near future. –  The Raven Apr 28 '11 at 21:20
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A very short, preliminary answer: it depends on the noun. Some nouns should always take the Latin plural, some can take either, and others should always have the English plural. Even in academic writing, not all Latin forms would sounds proper. If I have time I will look up examples and edit them in.

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Heh, this seems to agree closely with Jimi's answer. (The regional difference is important too.) As a student of science, I often find it a conundrum when to use Latin/English plurals, even being British! Maybe we should follow Isaac Newton and write all scientific papers in (Modern) Latin, hah. :) –  Noldorin Jan 17 '11 at 1:12
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@Noldorin: Thank you! If only! That would be marvellous. –  Cerberus Jan 17 '11 at 1:36
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As an actual classicist, I'd argue for the English plural in all but a few cases. Unless you are absolutely, completely sure you know the correct classical plural, or the classical plural is the normal plural, use the English plural. Using the classical plural may have a nice ring to it, but if you get it wrong it's so, so wrong.

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Absolutely right, you should be completely sure before even considering the Latin plural, see "octopus". That said, as another classicist, I try to squeeze in Latin plurals whenever they are not totally ridiculous. I think it might even be seen as "cute geekiness" if a classicist crosses that line. –  Cerberus Jan 17 '11 at 21:56
    
You should also be aware of unusual modern usages, e.g. although referenda is the appropriate plural of referendum in Latin, referendums is the preferable plural in English since a referenda is a plebiscite on a number of issues (whereas a referendum might be on only a single issue). –  gpr Jan 21 '11 at 13:20
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@gpr -- I've never heard "a referenda" and my dictionary doesn't back you up. Do you have a cite? @arnholt -- how do you expect people to get it right without practice ? –  Malvolio Apr 15 '11 at 2:00
    
@Malvolio - rather annoyingly, the online Oxford doesn't back me up either, although this Wikipedia article quotes from it: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Referendum#Terminology. Maybe it's only used by classicists, pedants, and psephologists :( –  gpr Apr 16 '11 at 22:52
    
Well, if people start using the right plurals then eventually nobody will get it wrong because they'll know for certain what the right form is. –  einpoklum Jan 25 at 18:32
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Most generally, American speakers tend to use the English-style plural, while British (and related) speakers favor the Latin-style. Of course, there are those words whose Latin-style plural forms are non-negotiable on either side of the pond, such as bacteria and criteria. And there are also those whose English-style plurals are universally preferred, e.g. moratoriums, apexes, etc.

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With bacteria and criteria, it's the singular form no one's quite sure about. In America I generally hear them used as singular forms themselves. I've even heard "criterias" used as a plural before, granted only in informal speech though... –  kitukwfyer Jan 17 '11 at 1:12
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Above all, the singular form that is really going out of favour is "datum", even here in Britain. I'm inclined to use "data" everywhere and treat it as a mass noun. This used to be discouraged in scientific writing, but not really any more... times change. –  Noldorin Jan 17 '11 at 1:14
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As a snob and a classicist, I couldn't possibly write "data are", which I hope people will forgive me, but I can understand why it may feel like a singular mass noun. I know such purism is completely irrational and can never be consistent—and yet I cannot shake it off. As a Dutchman, I still sometimes cringe at the sight of an English plural that would be Latin in Dutch, like museums–musea, even when I know that it is perfectly acceptable, and often the only choice, in English. –  Cerberus Jan 17 '11 at 1:33
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@Noldorin: You are right—them poor Italians, doubly screwed. We Dutch are lucky. Our most-used gift to the world's languages is apparently "boss" (from baas), which is hard to main. The twisting of Italian plurals and singulars is just as wide-spread in Dutch: some people order a panini, eat lasagna, etc. And then there is the spelling... –  Cerberus Jan 17 '11 at 2:02
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@Cerberus: Ah, I didn't know that; interesting! Well, I think the Dutch/Flemish should be commended at least on adopting Latinised names (surnames even). Erasmus, Vesalius, Mercator...? (They even persist to this day, as with General Petraeus; I'm sure there are other famous examples.) To be honest I've always wondered how this came about. Perhaps, as the first Renaissance country in Northern Europe, the interest in Classical civilisation really took off. That's just my guess - feel free to enlighten me! –  Noldorin Jan 17 '11 at 2:48
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Per Cerberus:

"Some nouns should always take the Latin plural, some can take either, and others should always have the English plural."

Give him a +1 for that - it's correct. There is no rule that applies to all Latinates; in usage they are case-by-case. "Agenda" is plural but you never see "agendum." "Symposia" is the plural but "symposiums" is far more common. These are all moving targets, largely depending on frequency of use and location or agency of that usage.

This is one of the most difficult areas of English because a sensitivity to "the usual thing" in any given context is critical to striking the right note.

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I've never seen symposiums, probably because the kind of people who go to symposia are the kind of people who like Latin plurals (i.e., my kind of people). –  Malvolio Apr 15 '11 at 1:58
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I claim we should promote the use of the Latin plural forms. When enough people adopt them, we'll drive the English-style plural forms into disuse. No more of these linguistic torture apparatuses! seseses!

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On the basis of what I've heard people (in the Midwest of the U.S.) say, I have the impression that: (1) Mathematicians say "formulas" but philosophers say "formulae". (2) Buildings and television sets used to have antennas atop them (before cable became common), but insects and little green Martians have antennae. (3) It is indeed dangerous to form "classical" plurals carelessly; I've heard a university professor use "quora" as the plural of "quorum".

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