Semper ubi sub ubi

by Eric on February 4, 2015

I write to record a position on a subject already treated in more specialist fora, but so far as I can tell given only Kieran’s crispest disposal on CT.

I refer, of course, to a matter routinely, if implicitly, raised by the auditors of curricula, every time they ask for samples of a syllabus: if they request more than one, what do they say they want? Syllabi? Or syllabuses?1

Doubtless this issue vexes few of the hoi polloi, nor troubles many alumni of great universities. Indeed, academics – from the Hebrides to the Antipodes – seem often to use “syllabi.”

A highly scientific anti-prescriptivist study has it that the answer is “syllabi.” Yet Kieran, per above, prefers “syllabuses,” as indeed do I.

If your etymological antennae are twitching, you can find a detailed account of the story of “syllabus” at the specialist links in the first sentence of the post. But the short version is, it’s a made-up word, erroneously thought to be adopted into Latin from the Greek, which it wasn’t. I.e., there isn’t a true proper correct answer, horribile dictu.

1I’ve never actually heard anyone insist it’s syllabÅ«s.



lambchop 02.04.15 at 10:43 pm

And yet, syllabi is Ciceronian, so there’s some argument for regarding it as a loan word that should decline as a Latin noun.


lambchop 02.04.15 at 10:45 pm

I see the Cicero argument is addressed in the linked discussions. Disregard!


Ebenezer Scrooge 02.04.15 at 11:17 pm

THE hoi polloi? Pish tosh.


Sandwichman 02.04.15 at 11:39 pm

Is the singular of hoi polloi hous pollous?


Henry Farrell 02.04.15 at 11:40 pm

After seeing the footnote, I’ve been converted to fourth-declensionism meself.


Harold 02.04.15 at 11:40 pm

Is the study really prescriptivist? Or does it recognize two that both usages are viewed as correct with a majority going for -i.

I’m with -es, myself, since to me syllabi sounds a bit affected. But maybe others don’t see it that way, or they don’t see affectation in a negative way, or they are so comfortable with Latin grammar that it’s not an affectation in their case.


Eric 02.04.15 at 11:41 pm

THE hoi polloi? Pish tosh.

Touchy! But if it was good enough for Byron and Dryden, it’s good enough for me.


Kieran 02.04.15 at 11:42 pm

Syllabuses and stadiums, thank you very much. I stand with ton pollon.


Eric 02.04.15 at 11:45 pm

I’ve been converted to fourth-declensionism meself.

“I was late today, as I had to go back to the hoose to get both my syllabÅ«s.”


Haftime 02.04.15 at 11:54 pm

Sandwichman – just as the singular of many is manus.


John Quiggin 02.05.15 at 12:00 am

Prescriptivism on plurals for words derived from Latin and Greek is an incoherent position. A truly consistent prescriptivism would require that the foreign plural be used for all words derived from foreign languages, which would be impossible.

So, prescriptivism amounts to a special kind of descriptivism, namely “say whatever was indicative of educated speech when I went to school”. In the context, “syllabi”, “hippotami” , “alumni” etc are equally and perfectly good, until they are not.


Phil 02.05.15 at 12:06 am

From that link, it sounds as if the correct plural is sittybae. Everything else is transcription errors & rationalisations of same.

A long time ago on a newsgroup* far, far away, I semi-seriously proposed that any Latin singular noun whose plural form was disputed** should take the form -ii: one virus, two virii; one octopus, two octopii; one penis, two penii; and, since Eric’s brought it to my attention, one syllabus, two syllabii. One omnibus (come to think of it), two omnibii. I might draw the line at stadii, though.

*Hands up who remembers newsgroups!
**Admittedly, the plural form of penis is only disputed in the sense that lots of people get it wrong. But this is the Internet, after all.


Dave Heasman 02.05.15 at 12:09 am

“Pish tosh”? Pish tush.


Dingbat 02.05.15 at 12:22 am

I’m happy to confess to answering “syllabÅ«s” when asked my professional opinion as a classics grad student. It just sounded right.

Perhaps, though, this may have something to do with why I am not a professional classicist.


harry b 02.05.15 at 12:48 am

“But the short version is, it’s a made-up word, erroneously thought to be adopted into Latin from the Greek, which it wasn’t. I.e., there isn’t a true proper correct answer, horribile dictu.”

Aren’t all words made up? Even Greek ones?


Jeff R. 02.05.15 at 12:56 am

Octopus is Greek, not latin. Octopodes or Octopuses, never Octopi or Octopii.

So go with syllabodes for equivalent deliberate wrongness. Or adopt the classic mongoose solution and ask for a syllabus, and then another syllabus.


JanieM 02.05.15 at 12:57 am

Where’s Meredith? ;-)


Eric 02.05.15 at 1:23 am

Aren’t all words made up? Even Greek ones?

Greek words made up by Hellenes have a certain euphony.

Words made up and called Greek by later Latins are certainly phony.


Sandwichman 02.05.15 at 1:45 am

“Aren’t all words made up??”

Yes, but the converse is not true.


Belle Waring 02.05.15 at 1:55 am



AB 02.05.15 at 2:33 am

Surely it must be stadiii?


js. 02.05.15 at 2:37 am

Oh, come on! ‘Syllabuses’ is almost as bad as ‘commentate’! If you can get away with not adding an extra syllable, don’t add an extra syllable. That’s a rule I can (and do) live by.

On the other hand, if it follows from the fact that it’s a made-up word that more or less anything goes, I propose to make ‘syllabus’ itself the plural form as well.


Belle Waring 02.05.15 at 2:40 am

Dude, we don’t go around putting correct Latin endings on everything; why would we put incorrect Latin endings?

“I propose to make ‘syllabus’ itself the plural form as well”
So you’re a fourth declension man after all, hmm?


ckc (not kc) 02.05.15 at 2:42 am

why would you need more than one?


Z 02.05.15 at 2:43 am

Prescriptivism on plurals for words derived from Latin and Greek is an incoherent position.

I guess you meant to write “worder” here.

In mathematics, there is an object called the Frobenius morphism, in honor of the mathematician Ferdinand Georg Frobenius who introduced it. It is usual, though slightly informal, to write “the Frobenius” for “the Frobenius morphism.” Recently, some people have started writing “the Frobenii” for “the Frobenius morphisms” and that irks me to no end.


novakant 02.05.15 at 2:47 am

syllabae ?

FWIW, I’ve been taught that the plural of comma is commata, but people give me funny looks whenever I say that.


js. 02.05.15 at 2:49 am

Ok, I just had to look up “fourth declension”. Because I am an unschooled pollous, and I know shit about Latin, it turns out. But I’m liking it more and more! (The fourth declension, not Latin.)


Colin Danby 02.05.15 at 2:49 am

Should the Greeks-only commenting rule be imposed here?

The good news is that the plural form of syllabus is rarely needed. In a given class, you can just say “copies of the syllabus,” right?

The *real* scandal is the erroneous use, routine among academics, of “phenomena” and “criteria” as though they were singular. I can only assume that some dread conspiracy of silence has prevented full coverage of that on CT.


bianca steele 02.05.15 at 2:54 am

Isn’t syllabus already a plural, of syllabub?


JanieM 02.05.15 at 2:57 am

Should the Greeks-only commenting rule be imposed here?

My laugh of the week.


Eric 02.05.15 at 2:57 am

Ok, I just had to look up “fourth declension”

Don’t you remember their recording of “Aquarius,” from Hair?


js. 02.05.15 at 3:03 am

Eric, I am sadly missing the joke because I’never seen Hair. (I do know about the Fifth Dimension, tho. Wait, maybe that was the joke?)


Eric 02.05.15 at 3:11 am

It was, sadly.


js. 02.05.15 at 5:08 am

Well, I’ve somehow ended up listening to a bunch of Jefferson Airplane in the last half hour. So, really kind of a win in my life.


Meredith 02.05.15 at 6:05 am

My problem with “correct” Latin and Greek plurals is that, once I’m thinking in one of those languages, I want the proper case ending, too. So, for instance, if I am saying fee fi fo fum, I smell smoke in the auditoriumS (where in the world am I that I would be saying such a thing?), I’d be offering that incantation in auditoriis, not in either auditoriums or auditoria. Then there’s agenda, “thingS to be done.” (On today’s agendis?).
It’s more often the neuter plural nom/acc in -a that gets confused with the first declension (usually fem.) sing. nom. in -a, than fourth declension -us with second declension us.
Don’t worry it all, folks. Enjoy, and all will be well!


maidhc 02.05.15 at 8:21 am

Jeff R.: Although “octopus” comes from Greek, not Latin, there’s an argument that as the scientific name of a species, “octopus” is New Latin and hence could have the plural “octopi”. Or perhaps “octopÅ«s”, if it’s fourth declension.

Meredith: Fee fee fie fie fum fum fo
I smell smoke in the auditorio?

This article may be of interest if you have access to it. Even if you don’t have access to it, the preview contains A. D. Godley’s wonderful poem on this topic.


Scott Martens 02.05.15 at 9:04 am

“Correct” is just not one of those concepts modern linguistics has a lot of time for, and the correct interpretation of the concept, from a linguistic science standpoint, is sociological. To ask what the correct plural of “syllabus” is merely to ask “what plural form should I use so people neither deem me a hick nor a snob?”

And the answer is… it depends who you’re talking to. If somebody gives you crap about “syllabuses”, point out that the origin of the word is a misspelling of Cicero misusing a Greek work and that “syllabi” makes about as much sense as “Velvet Elvii”. If somebody gives you crap about using “syllabi”, point out that Neo-Latin is still Latin and nobody worth anything says “alumnuses” for “alumni”.

Either way, you’re covered.


Scott Martens 02.05.15 at 9:05 am

“hasn’t” — why do I use the internet before 11am?


sanbikinoraion 02.05.15 at 9:48 am

I too, must call for Daniel to bring out the ban-hammer on anyone commenting here who is not Greek (or Roman, in a pinch).


chris y 02.05.15 at 10:09 am

Neo-Latin is still Latin and nobody worth anything says “alumnuses” for “alumni”

But if you attended more than one university (only for the best reasons), would you refer to your Almae Matres? Ho polys (it’s irregular, bad luck) might, but I’m sure you would have better taste.


Peter T 02.05.15 at 10:13 am

As events recede into history and myth, the bureaucrats, grunts, peasants and bystanders fade away, until only the famous remain. Some people come to believe, quite quickly, that the others were never there: that it was all done by the famous. As a former bureaucrat, I can say that bureaucrats have their heroes – but they are mostly not famous at all in wider circles, and only quiet suburban streets get named after them.


Phil 02.05.15 at 10:33 am

maidhc: Fee fee fie fie fum fum fo
I smell smoke in the auditorio

First laugh of the day – thankyou!

And yes, AB, the form should be “Stadiii”. (Two Is? No, three.)


Peter T 02.05.15 at 10:34 am

Oops – meant that comment for the succeeding thread.


TMD 02.05.15 at 11:34 am

Regarding the plural of “octopus”:
tl;dr: “octopus” was invented by Linnaeus by analogy with “polypus”, for which the “correct” plural should be “polypodes”. However, the forms actually seen in classical and later Greek and Latin texts also include “polypoi” (Gr.)/”polypi” (Lat.), so even the ancient Greeks and Romans couldn’t make up their minds about what plural to use, and there’s no good reason to go with anything other than “octopuses” in English.


Belle Waring 02.05.15 at 1:16 pm

Scott Martens: sure, but everyone pronounces ‘alumni’ and ‘alumnae’ not merely wrong, but more or less reversed. Well, more, like the former is enunciated but latter is being said. Supes annoying.


rea 02.05.15 at 2:34 pm

Isn’t syllabus already a plural, of syllabub?

A syllabub is a wonderful thing, but not really in any way related to “syllabus.”


JanieM 02.05.15 at 2:40 pm

A syllabub is a wonderful thing, but not really in any way related to “syllabus.”

I thought Bianca was joking………


David J. Littleboy 02.05.15 at 3:27 pm

” who is not Greek (or Roman, in a pinch).”

Does having graduated (barely) from Boston Public Latin School count???

I was around for the invention of the Latin verb quuxo, quuuxare, quuxandum iri (which means, of course, “to quux”, although the inventor was a preacher’s kid (really!) and didn’t think those sorts of thoughts, if you are thinking those sorts of thoughts). But that and the title of this thread are about all the Latin I remember.

As a (largely retired) translator, I find the prescriptivist linguists (the ones who insist that there is a right and wrong) useful; if the client argues, Brian Garner’s my savior. But they’re more often wrong than right, making them a fun target for the real linguists over at Language Log.

(Actually, Garner’s pretty good: he includes real usage data in many of his entries. (Although his book with Scalia is, apparently, problematic.))


bianca steele 02.05.15 at 3:44 pm

Syllabub is one of those words you read in old novels and never look up, so thanks for the recipes.


dr ngo 02.05.15 at 4:23 pm

I was at a banquet once where they served syllabub – delicious! I had two helpings. Failed to remember or discern that cream is a major ingredient; since I am lactose intolerant, this was a major mistake, one that kept me up in agony all night. Too little learning is a dangerous thing.


Minnow 02.05.15 at 4:27 pm

“Syllabub is one of those words you read in old novels and never look up”

Really? Syllabub is the taste of summer in these parts. So easy to make too.


MDH 02.05.15 at 4:31 pm

IANALinguist — so have NO idea whether these words do, could, or should, have similar origin, but I would invoke the word “octopus” as something that (maybe!) should be pluralized similarly.

In this video ( we learn that “octopuses” is fine, “octopi” is fine, and that there’s a 3rd, from the Greek, “octopodes” which is also fine, if non-standard.

I say “syllabi” whenever it comes up. But, I move that we all start in with “syllabodes” henceforth.


sanbikinoraion 02.05.15 at 4:51 pm

“It is reputedly most traditionally made by the milkmaid milking the cow directly into a jug of cider.”

Source, alas only in English, and not Latin.


Sandwichman 02.05.15 at 5:45 pm



Harold 02.05.15 at 6:04 pm

If descriptivists were to include the concept of “register” in their descriptions, then their conclusions would more closely match those of the prescriptivists.


Scott Martens 02.05.15 at 6:08 pm

Belle, if we’re going to get into the abuse of Latin pronunciation, we’ll be here all day.

No one in their right mind would say “sil-a-bee”. That would be beyond the pale, marking one not only as a Latin geek but as an eye-rolling face-palmer of a Latin geek who will never get laid. I am a linguist (certificates available on request), and those are, in fact, the customary criteria for pronouncing something as linguistically non-standard, or in the vernacular: wrong.


Gavin Kostick 02.05.15 at 6:24 pm

This is syllabellum.


Jim Harrison 02.05.15 at 6:31 pm

Speaking of plurals from ancient languages: saints are said to display the stigmata, which is the plural of stigma. Is it also correct to point out that certain right wing politicians and pundits exhibit the smegmata?


Anarcissie 02.05.15 at 7:29 pm

@28 — In regard to such as criteria, phenomena, media, and other such, in Latin it was permissible* to use a singular verb with a plural neuter subject, so if someone ‘corrects’ you, you can always hyperpedant them back by invoking this rule.

* People did it a long time ago.


marcel 02.05.15 at 7:52 pm

Well, Blimey. You could’a knocked me down with a fender, and all.

Today is the first day I recall ever coming across the word “posset” and there it is again in the link that Rea provides (Somehow, I never noticed it the many, many, oh, so very many, times I read Hamlet!)

When it rains, it pours.


Neville Morley 02.05.15 at 8:24 pm

Anyone got any thoughts on the plural of clematis, which looks Greek at least?Clematises is just plain ugly. I incline to clematides


Harold 02.05.15 at 8:52 pm

@59 No but I was quite amazed to see that in the traditional British pronunciation of botanical Latin it was pronounced cle-MA-tis. Thankfully, in this case, they seem to have switched over to the accentuation on the penultimate. I almost fell off my chair when I saw some of the other older British Botanical Latin pronunciations.


Harold 02.06.15 at 1:16 am

aargh, ante-penultimate I meant to write.


Meredith 02.06.15 at 6:16 am

A@59, re neut. pl. subj. with sing. vb. Very Greek. Latin, too (vernacular, not the Augustan affectations — I’m not using “affectations” in a bad sense, mind)? Is that so?


Harold 02.06.15 at 6:38 am

Aren’t there sort of collective singulars? — I just looked up the singular of flora — which is flos, which I never knew or had forgotten.

Then there is vulgar Latin, which dropped the Latin nominative in many cases, in favor of the accusative, which is what seemed to happened to flos as it became French and Italian and also Spanish (where it changed genders, too).

Fauna – takes a singular verb in English, too, no?


Belle Waring 02.06.15 at 7:08 am

“That would be beyond the pale, marking one not only as a Latin geek but as an eye-rolling face-palmer of a Latin geek who will never get laid.”

I resent the implication and wish to make clear that I have had sex on more than one occasion. Though, I don’t actually ever correct people about Latin pronunciation. Mostly.


Sancho 02.06.15 at 8:34 am


Scott Martens 02.06.15 at 8:56 am

Belle: Photographa ostende aut factum non est. (insert smiley emoticon here)


The Modesto Kid 02.06.15 at 2:44 pm

Why not “syllabusses”?


Rich Puchalsky 02.06.15 at 2:55 pm

From Sancho’s link @ 67: “Hell No! This is America, not Latin America. When in Rome do as the Romans do!”

I think I may have hurt myself from laughing too hard.


sanbikinoraion 02.10.15 at 3:34 pm

Scott, I hope that’s not Latin for “pics or it never happened”!

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