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A table may have one index, or it could have more [...]?

Is it indexes or indices? I'm just asking because I've noticed they're both used quite often. Even Wikipedia seems to support both variants (as in this article). Though, it prefers to use indices.

"indexes" - Google search

"indices" - Google search

Simply put, which is the preferred plural?

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    This page makes a clear distinction: "The plural of the noun index should always be indices. This handily distinguishes it from the present tense of the verb index, which can only be indexes." -federalist.wordpress.com/2006/09/28/grammar-indexes-vs-indices – Chris Ballance Jun 16 '09 at 13:09
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    Since English is not my native language, I find the checked answer (explaining about plural and noun) just the right answer, so I don't want to uncheck it. Even though both spellings are correct, it's just a good explanation to customers if they ever wonder why I talk about "indices" instead of "indexes". – Wim ten Brink Jun 17 '09 at 7:49
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    For those coming late to the party, I want to note that from a purely grammatical point of view, this answer is, well, not precisely incorrect, but certainly misleading. It implies consensus where there is none, and says there is only one right answer when there are clearly two. To those who wish to make the English language more logical: we feel your pain, but it just doesn't work that way. – Marthaª Mar 14 '12 at 6:13
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    @nohat: it's unfortunate that you merged the other question into this one. This one has a bunch of highly-upvoted answers that are not really correct, and the correct answers to the "native" question are lost in the mix. See the meta question about this. – Marthaª Mar 14 '12 at 13:47
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    @nohat: ah, I see. Stupid undo, it's only ever available when you don't really need it. (I still want an undo that would apply immediately after I drop my favorite porcelain bowl.) – Marthaª Mar 14 '12 at 16:43

10 Answers 10

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From Oxford Dictionaries:

plural of index: indexes or especially in technical use indices

The plural of index is usually spelled indexes, but can also be spelled indices (as in the original Latin) in subjects like science and medicine.

So, technically I'd use indices.

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    I like how it specifically mentions technical use. Thanks for the answer. – Jeremy Sep 16 '10 at 21:23
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    I'm not clear why the jump from "can also be spelled" (which is odd since this is not simply a spelling difference but an actual difference in the word used) to actually preferring "indices". The quote doesn't justify it or even say it is more prevalent. – delete Sep 16 '10 at 22:36
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    I was taught that books have indexes while maths has indices (similarly, people have appendixes while books have appendices). – TRiG Apr 13 '11 at 23:29
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    A process that indexes creates indices. The result of that process is an index for each item touched by that process. – JustinC Jun 11 '13 at 8:08
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    @JustinC: I would say that a process that creates compact identifiers for objects creates indices; a process that creates tables used to find objects creates indexes. – supercat Mar 4 '16 at 16:14
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Both are valid English; that is why you see both used. One person may be used to the other, while the guy down the hall says it the other way. See dictionary.com if you haven't already.

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  • Also in the Oxford Dictionary of English, something like "plural: "indexes" or "indices" (especially in technical writing)". – Richard Jun 16 '09 at 13:24
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One isn't more correct than the other. We speak English, not Latin.

However, if you restrict it to databases, I think the more common spelling is indexes, and Google supports me on this.

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    googlefight.com/…" – Nosredna Jun 16 '09 at 13:24
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    Well quite; but array indices and database indexes are different beasts. I would probably use "array indices", but on the other hand, I would also say "Oracle indexes". – Simon Nickerson Jun 16 '09 at 13:48
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    Why are array indices and database indexes different beasts? They are both plurals of "index", no? – Lynn Mar 15 '12 at 2:19
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    Yes, for databases 'indexes' seems to be accepted. In all the Oracle documentation I've read Oracle refers to 'indexes' and I've not ever seen Oracle use 'indices'. – eebbesen Jul 28 '15 at 14:28
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    @Ethan: The term "database index" may be used to describe either the location of an object within a database, or a table used for the purpose of locating objects within a database. I would regard 'indices" as the appropriate plural for the first usage, and "indexes" as the plural for the second. – supercat Mar 4 '16 at 16:15
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Good question.

I generally feel that "indices" is more correct, but "indexes" more common. So when not trying to be extra highbrow, I uses "indexes".

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I happen to prefer "indices" but I was wondering if one was generally preferred over the other.

Who are you writing for? That should be the first consideration. For example, opening the Oxford Writers' Dictionary, I find that it tells me to use the plural indexes. So if you're writing for Oxford University Press you'd better use indexes. If you're writing only to please yourself you can use whatever plural you like, so in theory you could be like those people who write unixen and say indexen I suppose, although that might make your writing less popular.

I think indices is common enough that it doesn't come across as at all an eccentric choice.

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The word "index" may be used either to refer to a small piece of information used to identify something else, or to refer to a collection of information used to locate objects when given such an index. I would suggest that the plural of the first form of "index" is "indices"; the plural of the second form is "indexes".

As support for this, see the Merriam Webster entry for index:

plural in·dex·es or in·di·ces

The only definition with further information about the plural form is the fourth:

  1. plural usually indices : a number or symbol or expression (as an exponent) associated with another to indicate a mathematical operation to be performed or to indicate use or position in an arrangement <3 is the index of the expression ∛5 to indicate the cube root of 5>
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  • Another answer suggests that 'indexes' and 'indices' tend to be used in different contexts, but offers no particular logic as to why. I would suggest that while many people use the plurals interchangeably, the reason "array indices" is more common than "array indexes", but "magazine indexes" is more common than "magazine indices" is that "array index" describes a small token of information while "magazine index" represents a larger collection of information. – supercat Mar 4 '16 at 16:50
  • @sumelic: As a native English speaker, my first expectation upon hearing the phrase "market indices" would be that it referred to some individual numbers representing market performance. while "market indexes" would refer to directories containing information about market participants, etc. In most cases either meaning could be inferred for either word based upon context, but I think there are times when "indexes" would seem more natural and there are times when "indices" would seem more natural. – supercat Mar 4 '16 at 16:58
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Both are valid. I prefer indexes, as it easily convey the meaning.

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Indices seem slightly more common as it is also often used in the formal context (like while working on some project etc.)

COCA (Corpus Of Contemporary American English) also shows that indices is more common. Although both seem to be in widespread use

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The plural(s) of 'index' in U.S. dictionaries

Both Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2010) give indexes and indices as acceptable plurals of index—but both of them list indexes first and indices second, which their way of indicating that indexes is the more common (or the preferred) plural, according to their assessment.

Today, the online versions of these dictionaries continue to support the preferences given in print a decade or more ago.

Merriam-Webster:

index noun | plural indexes or indices

American Heritage:

index n. pl. indexes or indices

Having said that, I note that an Ngram chart plotting relative frequency of indexes (blue line) and indices (red line) for the period 1750–2019 shows a widening advantage for indices in the published works included in the Google Books database over the past thirty years or so:

I note that the results for "indexes" tracked in this Ngram chart include instances where "indexes" appears as a singular verb (as in "She indexes academic books for a living"), as well as instances where it appears as a plural noun; in contrast, the results for "indices" include only instances of the word as a plural noun. So the advantage for indices over indexes as a plural of index in the Google Books database is probably somewhat (although not a lot, to judge from my spot-checking of the actual matches underlying the data plots in the chart) larger than the chart suggests.

A further point of interest is that one of the six definitions of index covered in Merriam-Webster's entry for index as a noun includes a remark that the plural for index when used in this particular sense is usually rendered as indices:

index n ... 4 pl usu indices : a number or symbol or expression (as an exponent) associated with another to indicate a mathematical operation to be performed or to indicate use or position in an arrangement

None of the other definitions in the MW entry for index—and none of the six entries for index as a noun in AHDEL—indicate a "usu" plural form of index as between indexes and indices.


Discussions of 'indexes' versus 'indices' in U.S. style guides

Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, third edition (2009) may have had the order of plural entries for index in MW and AHDEL in mind when he addressed the issue of indexes versus indices:

Index. A. Plurals. For ordinary purposes, indexes is the preferable plural, not indices [examples omitted].

Indices, though less pretentious than fora or dogmata, is pretentious nevertheless. Some writers prefer it to indexes in technical contexts, as in mathematics and the sciences. Though not the best plural for index, indices is permissible in the sense "indicators"—e.g., "Various indices, from satellite photos of crops in the Third World to emergency room reports of overdoses in America's inner cities, [...]"

Garner goes on to note that some writers at least occasionally use the harder-to-defend forms indeces (plural) and indice (singular).

Kenneth Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) notes that both plural forms are currently standard in English and then focuses on the idea of "foreign plurals" versus "regular English plurals":

index (n.) has two Standard plurals: indexes (pronounced IN-deks-iz) and indices (pronounced IN-di-SEEZ). See FOREIGN PLURALS [where Wilson makes the following relevant observations: "But when loan words cease to deem foreign, and if their frequency in English increases, they very often drop the foreign plural in favor of a regular English -s. Thus at any given time we can find some loan words in divided usage, with both the foreign plural (e.g., indices) and the regular English plural (e.g., indexes) in Standard use."]

Wilson seems to take the view that, all things else being equal, indexes will eventually win out over indices as index becomes less and less a foreign loan word and more and more a naturalized English word. This same expectation probably underlies Garner's view that insisting on retaining a word's original "foreign plural" form is pretentious once the word (in its singular form) has been fully subsumed into everyday English.

Other style guides offer more perfunctory treatment of the issue. For example, from Frank Vizetelly, A Desk-Book of Errors in English, revised edition (1920):

indices : A plural form of index, generally and more properly reserved for use in science and mathematics. In other cases the plural indexes should be used.

From Roy Copperud, American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1980):

indexes, indices. The first is the Anglicized form, the second the Latin form. Indexes is recommended.

From The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, revised edition (1999):

indexes (not indices).

From Bill Bryson, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words (2002):

indexes, indices. Either is acceptable, though some dictionaries favor indices for technical applications.


British and Canadian commentators' views of 'indices' versus 'indexes'

Thus far I have focused on U.S. style guides, but British and Canadian style guides have also weighed in on the question. From H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926/1937):

LATIN PLURALS ...More often the Latin & English forms are on fairly equal terms, context or individual taste deciding for one or the other: dogmas, formulas, indexes, hiatuses, & gladioluses, are fitter for popular writing, while scientific treatises tend to dogmata, formulae, indices, hiatus, & gladioli. ... All that can safely be said is that there is a tendency to abandon the Latin plurals, & that when one is really in doubt which to use the English form should be given the preference.

From Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English (1947):

indices; indexes. The former is obligatory in Mathematics and Science; indexes is correct for 'an index of names, subjects, etc.'; in all other senses, indices is now the more usual plural.

From Margery Fee & Janice MaAlpine, [Oxford] Guide to Canadian English Usage, second edition (2007):

Latin plurals Most English words derived from Latin form their plurals in the regular way, by adding -s or -es, and this is the safest choice if you are in doubt[cross-reference omitted]. However, there are some Latin borrowings that still form their plurals according to the rules of Latin, at least in formal contexts:

...

– singular ends in -ex or -ix, plural in -ices: appendix, appendices; cortex, cortices, index, indices; matrix, matrices


Conclusions

Style guides seem to agree generally that the plural of index in a mathematical or scientific setting is commonly—and arguably properly—rendered as indices. As for the plural in nonspecialist settings, many sources—especially in the United States—endorse indexes as the plural, but most acknowledge that neither form is incorrect.

At the management consultancy where I've been working for the past several years, the general house style rule is to follow the spelling preferences laid out in the latest edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. As I noted earlier, AHDEL gives the nod to indexes—but in this instance the consultancy's house style guide overrules that preference and opts for indices:

indices (not indexes)

Whether this decision reflects pretentiousness, a desire to look as scientific as possible, or simple affection for Latin plural forms, I can't say. But it is symptomatic of a striking and sustained effort (evident in the Ngram chart above) among U.S. and British English writers to resist the Anglicization of indices to indexes—even though such Anglicization is, as Henry Fowler noted almost a century ago, the usual tendency in dealing with a foreign plural as the singular form of the word becomes naturalized into common English.

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I vote "indexes"

Since it's a toss-up, I plan to use "indexes" from now on.

Chris Ballance argues in a comment above that "indices" is easily distinguished from the verb, as in "he indexes things", but I think that would be clear from context.

Meanwhile, "indexes" is a normal-looking plural and "indices" is a weird exception to learn. Languages tend to drop the least-used oddities over time, and I think that's a good thing. Goodness knows we still have plenty of oddities to remember. Think of all the poor toddlers hearing "it's not 'eated', it's 'ate'", and embrace simplifications when you can.

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