If you read our recent blog post, Gen Z: generating change, you may already be familiar with the word Latinx, but if you didn’t, you may well know the words Latino and its feminine equivalent, Latina. Just as nowadays we often say spokesperson and chairperson to avoid using words like spokesman or spokeswoman that specify a person’s gender, so Latinx is a gender-neutral term for someone of Latin American origin.
But if we choose to use the word Latinx to talk about people of Latin American origin, how do we say it in the plural? According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, we can say either “Latinxs” or simply “Latinx”. As you can see, the dictionary can help us a lot with the pronunciation of tricky plural forms like this!
When new words come into the language, their plural form is not necessarily established, so, as in this case, there may be two (or even more) options to choose between. Indeed, the plural of spokesperson can be formed by either simply adding an “s” (“spokespersons”) or by adding the plural of “person” to the root “spokes-“ (“spokespeople”). Both forms are commonly used. For chairperson, however, the normal plural form is “chairpersons”.
Some words that aren’t new also have more than one possible plural form. For scarf we can write “scarves” or “scarfs”, and for hoof “hoofs” or “hooves” (but note that for roof we can only say “roofs”, not “rooves”!). In such cases the “-ves” form seems to be more common, perhaps because it better reflects the way the word is pronounced.
Perhaps the most common set of words that have more than one plural form, though, are words that come from Latin. The plural of cactus, for example, can be either “cactuses” or the Latin plural form “cacti”, and hippopotamus can be “hippopotamuses” or “hippopotami”. Appendix, too, can be “appendices” or “appendixes”. In these cases, the Latin form seems to be more common, perhaps because it is easier to pronounce.
It isn’t always quite so simple, though. In Latin, most nouns that end in “-us” have a plural form ending in “-i”, but there are a few that do not, such as opus (plural “opera”). A more common scenario, though, is that we English speakers may believe that a word ending in “-us” is of Latin origin, but it actually came into the Latin language from Greek, and so a plural form ending in “-i” would have been incorrect in Latin anyway. One example of this is the word octopus:
As we can see above, the most common plural form is “octopuses”. The plural “octopi” seems to be quite commonly used, but is generally considered incorrect, though some people may use it for reasons such as humour, or because they think it is the correct form and want to appear educated. Some people also use the correct Greek plural form “octopodes”, but this is much less common.
A similar phenomenon seems to have occurred with a word which has sadly played a big part in all of our lives in 2020, virus (plural “viruses”). Despite the fact that there is no evidence that the Latin word virus (which was used to refer to the venom of a snake) was ever used in a plural form, when the word began to be used in relation to computers at the beginning of this century, some people started to use the plural form “viri”, as is shown in our corpora:
Like “octopi”, however, this is now recognized as incorrect.
There are of course some words of Latin origin which don’t have a Latin plural form at all, like bonus (plural “bonuses”) or chorus (“choruses”), as well as words that never actually existed in Latin but are derived from it, such as bus (a short form of omnibus). The plural of bus is “buses”, but in the US “busses” is also used. As you might say about your relationship status on your social media page, “it’s complicated”!
At the moment Latinx seems to be one of very few words in English where “x” has been added to an existing English word, but with more people wanting to avoid gender-specific language, there may soon be more to come, and with them more words with alternative plural forms. Watch this space!
Mark Temple worked as an English teacher in Spain, Italy and Latin America before becoming an editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.