Plurals derived from Latin words ending with -us normally have the ending -i. However, the plural of virus is viruses and the plural of bonus is bonuses because these words do not have Latin plurals in English.

Considering the fact that the majority of English words come from Latin (or Greek, usually via Latin), why don't these words have Latin plurals in English?

Ok, viri is Latin for "men", not "viruses"; and boni in Latin means "good men", not "bonuses", but we are speaking English, so why don't we use viri and boni as plurals for virus and bonus in order to follow normal convention?

  • 2
    Normal convention is adding the -(e)s suffix, after all we're talking about English, not Latin nor Greek. About 25 % of words are derived from Latin, it is not the majority of English words, it is the largest percentage. Must check Wikipedia for that percentage figure...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 11:45
  • 3
    Latin loanwords are about 29% according to Wikipedia, so it's not "the majority" of words, i.e. 51%
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 11:49
  • 2
    I think you need to take a closer look at the second link, it clearly says that "viri" is a false plural form of virus. Moreover, “vīrī [is the] genitive singular of virus” I am downvoting this question because it is supplying inaccurate and incorrect information.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 12:13
  • 2
    The notion that it is "normal convention" to replace "-us" by "-i" is not even true when restricted to "-us" nouns taken directly from Latin with no change in spelling. Rather, there are conventions to use the "-es" suffix as @Mari-Lou said, and to use the original word's plural whatever that is. "Viri" is neither the normal-form English plural of "virus" nor the Latin noun's plural, so it would not be any English "normal convention" to adopt "viri" as plural of "virus".
    – Rosie F
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 12:18
  • 6
    For one thing, nothing but second declension Latin -us nouns become -i in the nominative plural or singular genitive. The many third declension nouns like genus, genera or corpus, corpora do not, nor do fourth declension nouns like status, apparatus, manus. But for another thing, that's Latin morphology, not English; vide ignoramus et seqq.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 13:18

1 Answer 1


We are speaking English, not Latin.

Just because a word comes from another language does not mean that the system of declension (or changes in form to determine syntactic function) follows it.

First, most English users are not familiar with the origin languages of their vocabulary. Old English, French, Latin, Greek, Norse - English users know words from these languages without necessarily knowing anything about these languages' rules for declension, conjugation, or syntax. If the word goes into wider use, users will tend to apply standard English rules to those words: to add an -s for the plural. English is not an obstinate holdout in this regard. Latin does the same thing with words from other languages: compare the Greek-derived abacus (plural abaci) and the Greek root abax (plural abakes). Latin users could have used the third declension structure (which is closer but still not identical to Greek), but they instead created a new word abacus and went with it. Words entering a new language are usually subject to the new language's structures. It would take larger scale structural borrowing to have English use the same declension structure as Latin. That hasn't happened.

Second, even if we wanted to equate a Latin plural form with the English plural form, the question would be, "Which one?" The nominative and accusative plural of the neuter second declension noun virus is vira, but there's also a genitive plural (virorum), a dative plural (viris), and an ablative plural (viris). English lacks all of these forms, but if you're working on the assumption that Latin declension matters, then these forms ought to be accounted for. (That's not to mention the four other declensions, the notion of grammatical gender, or the other distinctions in Latin we're neglecting.)

Using one of these forms is an arbitrary choice, and one that is fundamentally ungrammatical within the structure of that original language. Thus exceptions that preserve the Latin-formed plural like alumni (the nominative plural of alumnus, except in English the end is usually pronounced like "eye" and not like "knee") aren't generative of new plurals, just as woman -> women is not generative; the -i affix cannot be used to form new plurals in English except by exceptional prescriptivism.

Finally, words derived from other languages are frequently subject to more radical changes in spelling or form. Culture comes (via French) from the Latin word cultura, but even the singular form has shifted. When words come into English, its users tend to see them as new words rather than as avatars from their prior language. Forms develop accordingly.

For these reasons, the list of Latin-derived words that have Latin-derived plural forms is small, tends to be academic in usage, and doesn't follow a single rule. Most Latin-derived English words have English or Anglicized affixes.

  • 2
    It's worth noting that different fields will often use (whether derived from Latin or not) words whose base forms are spelled and pronounced identically, but whose other forms vary. The link gives a beautiful example of that--insects have antennae and radios have antennas, but the base form of both is spelled "antenna". The present-tense forms of the verbs a baseball player would use if he "flew" (moved quickly) out to second base or "flied" out to second base (hit a fly ball) are both spelled "fly". Words can be spelled the same without their altered forms being interchangeable.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 17:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.