I know that insects have antennae and machines have antennas.
Which plural form should I use for something that’s both insectoid and a machine? Does one officially take precedence?
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It only takes a minute to sign up.Sign up to join this community
It is not really a matter of insect vs. machine.
‘Antennas’ are rods that are meant to transmit radio or television signals. ‘Antennae’ are the appendages that are attached to the heads of some animals and insects.
If your (imaginary, I’m assuming?) robotic insects have appendages sticking out of their heads, those would be antennae, even though the ‘insects’ themselves are machines. If these things are then also used to transmit radio or television signals (why not? If you’re going to make a robotic insect, you might as well give it a TV transmitter as well!), they would be both: antennae that function as antennas.
This is a curiosity of grammar for sure. My assumption had been that this was a British English versus American English (our antipodean friends being betwixt the two, though they tend to prefer the enunciation of the Queen to the drawl of the cowboy). The Brits loving the Latin antennae, and the Americans the simpler antennas.
But it seems that most dictionaries agree that the Latin plural is preferred worldwide for the insect appendages (and its metaphorical uses) and only the radio receiving device show the distinction. Also note that commonly the Brits use the word "aerial" when Yanks would use antenna. This is short for "aerial antenna" but "aerial" just means plain old "antenna" in Britain.
I couldn't find much to explain these two different routes for plurals, since the electronic device takes its name from the insect appendage. These two different plurals of different meanings of the same word are surely very unusual in English. However, the preference for language neutral Latin within the biological sciences might well the be cause of such a strange situation, and yet the very common use outside the academy may demand a simpler plural.
To answer your specific question: the function of antennae is to detect, primarily by touch, the function of antennas is to send and receive radio waves. Which function the antenna on your device performs must determine the plural, though I suspect nobody will get too worked up either way.
Dictionary definition of antenna with the two plurals in Free Dictionary.
Another article on this.
The etymology of the words is here.