Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Viruses or virii?

On the question of the plural of the English word "virus."

<start rant>

Sigh. I can't resist any longer.... Having been sent to an old-style boarding school, I endured several years of Latin and Greek during my teen-age years.

There are some really humorous posts by grammar freaks about this issue on Slashdot, most replied to by others with accusations of being grammar-nazis. I especially liked one which talked about the 'numerative' plurals viri, virii, viriii, viriv, virv, virvi, etc.

I went back to my books, and despite some bad memories of early morning rote memorization, flashbacks of the smell of chalk and of sneering teachers twisting my ears, I found the following. Of course, it's not as simple as one would think.

Here goes:

Not every English word ending in -us forms a plural in -i, for several reasons, in order of importance (sez who?) --

  • Common English usage: campus/-uses, omnibus/-uses (already a dative plural root), rebus/-uses (already an ablative plural root)
  • Some are actually verbs in Latin: ignoramus/-uses, mandamus/-uses
  • They are from a different declension (it is the 2nd that uses -i for the plural form, but not always...):
    • From the 2nd declension: narcissus/-i, nimbus/-i, radius/-i (but common usage also has the plural -uses for these)
    • From the 3rd declension: corpus/-ora, genus/-era, opus/-era (but common usage also has the plural -uses for these)
    • From the 4th declension: apparatus/-uses, hiatus/-uses, impetus/-uses, nexus/-uses, prospectus/-uses, status/-uses

  • They were already irregular in Latin: callus/-uses, octopus/-uses, platypus/-uses, AND, DRUM ROLL PLEASE.... virus/-uses (virii is incorrect, even in Latin)
  • The English and Latin plurals actually have evolved to mean something different in English, called "split evolution": genius -> geniuses (a gathering of Einsteins) vs. genius -> genii (lots of genies from lamps)
  • It's an adjective, duh: dangerous, callous, etc. etc.

All that being said, English is not Latin. In my (gosh, apparently NSH) opinion, those who have tried to force Anglo-Saxon languages to adhere to Latin grammatical patterns have done a lot of harm to countless generations of school children. Two common examples of this shoe-horning for English are: 1) forbidding prepositions at the end of a sentence; and 2) forbidding the "split infinitive." These rules come from Latin, and do not belong in English, except in the minds of Victorian-age grammarians on a mission to prove themselves superior.

Most importantly, English is a living language, and will evolve, like it or not. An example of this today is the slowly disappearing difference between "bring" and "take" when used with "come" and "go" -- if you don't know what I'm talking about, consider yourself already evolved, and more modern than those who still cringe when they hear this "mistake."

Latin and Greek forms of plurals will eventually disappear (and should).

See also http://www.perl.com/language/misc/virus.html (pointed out by Brian McEwen)

And phooey to anyone pointing out grammatical errors in this message.

And now, back to your regular programming...

</end rant>

"Gee... you'd think this was a grammar blog"


At 7:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's comforting to know I"m not the only one who has these kind of conversations with my friends.

At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We found 192 virxcxii on our computer...


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