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A woman drove past me recently in a car with a license plate holder reading “ALUMNI — BOSTON COLLEGE”. It’s a perfectly standard thing to have on one’s car — although BC was a bit of a surprise given that I’m in San Diego –, but it also presented a minor choice point in my day. I could either think of it as totally unremarkable and move on, or I could fret over its grammaticality.*

It looked like this, except mounted on a car instead of floating in a featureless void.

The problem with the license plate holder is a minor one that you’d easily never know if you’re unfamiliar with Latin. I was unaware of it until college, and even then it was perhaps only because I went to a school so fond of Latin as a scholarly language that our degrees were not BAs but ABs (Artium Baccalaureus instead of Bachelor of Arts) and our diplomas were written entirely in Latin.**

Anyway, the problem is that alumni is, at least in Latin, plural. Furthermore, it’s masculine (or mixed-gender). For a single graduate, the Latinally accurate form would be alumnus for a male or alumna for a female. And for multiple female graduates, the Latinally accurate form would be alumnae.

I imagine many of you readers already knew that, but maybe you didn’t. If I’m being perfectly honest, I wish I didn’t. Why? Because I can’t help noticing it. I suspect that a majority of the English speaking population doesn’t think that alumni has even the hint of inherent plurality about it. I’m looking at the Corpus of Contemporary American English right now, and there are 70 hits for “an alumni”, 61 of them in writing.*** That’s more common than “an alumna” and “an alum”, and only 29 hits less than “an alumnus”. Quite simply, singular alumni is standard in all but the most formal of Englishes, and I’m not sure it’s non-standard even there.

Why is singular alumni standard? Because it fits better with English. We don’t really like gender on our nouns (at least not anymore — Old English was fond of it). And we don’t really care about adjusting the plurality of borrowed words, especially not from Latin — see agenda or stamina. Rather than having to remember a fairly idiosyncratic gender/number system, it’s easier to treat alumni as a base singular form with a zero-plural, just like strong ol’ Germanic words like sheep or fish. And it saves university bookstores from having to stock four different license plate holders.

[EX-CUSE: Syracuse Alumni]

It’s a tangent, but this pun is almost enough to make me wish I had gone to Syracuse.

To return to the point of the opening paragraph, I can’t, much as I’d like to, stop myself from correcting singular alumni. It’s not even like it’s a choice, or a conscious decision — I see singular alumni, and my brain says “alumnus” or “alumna”. That much is automatic.

Where the choice comes in is whether I say something about it or judge people for it. In almost every situation, I don’t. For seemingly everybody, singular alumni is acceptable. For many of the rest, they’re okay when it’s used in a reasonable situation (such as when you don’t know the gender of the person buying the item). It’s only in very formal or very edited English (or around close friends who I think will be interested) that I would raise the issue. In other situations, bringing it up would just seem like an attempt to show off my passing familiarity with Latin, which would be a especially pathetic boast.

This is not linguistic whateverism. I’m not saying that editing is stupid or that nothing should be corrected. Editing, I can’t stress enough, is critical. But my point is that for all of you who insist that, say, it’s for its kills you and you can’t stop yourself from correcting it: yes, you can. We’re not beasts; we have self-control. When it’s something trifling, or in an ephemeral setting, or clearly not indicative of a larger ignorance of the language, you can and should let it pass. You’ll be happier for it, and you might even see a drop in your overall peevishness levels.

*: This is a false dichotomy; there is clearly a third way — to base a blog post upon it, thereby spending far more effort than if I had been content to simply complain about its grammaticality. Given that I’m going to berate that choice as a foolish use of one’s time, I’m aware of the irony in mine.

**: In fact, we are so enamored of traditional uses of Latin that to this day the salutorian of the class delivers their graduation speech entirely in Latin. The graduating seniors are given a copy of the speech in both Latin and English, with the Latinate portion marked for where to laugh, cheer, applaud, etc. I don’t think the rest of the audience is given this cheat sheet, thereby creating the illusion that we all speak Latin fluently enough to understand it in oratorical form.

I know, it sounds stupid and pretentious and ridiculous, and it is. But it was also great silly fun to overlaugh at something incomprehensible, sort of like being a member of a studio audience clapping at “APPLAUSE” signs must be. I highly recommend you petition your alma mater to do the same.

***: Many of these are in noun-noun compounds like “an alumni club” or “an alumni trustee”, where the grammatical number of alumni is unclear. Though my original intuition is that it’s being thought of as plural in these cases, English does tend to disprefer plural first nouns in noun-noun compounds (cf. mousetrap, cowcatcher, leafblower). Also, if one were to replace alumni in these compounds with some standardly pluralized noun like student, it’d be “student club”, not “students club”. Thus, I’m inclined to think of these examples as further, though weaker, evidence of singular usage alumni.


Here are two sentences from pages 394-5 of Paul Lovinger’s The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style, sentences that come just after Lovinger quoted five examples of a newspaper columnist’s use of a certain word — a word so appalling that he censors it himself:

“Although most writers do not display such voracity for bad language, that clumsy barbarism, ‘s—,’ is polluting the English tongue.  A radical weekly uses it regularly along with a grotesque plural version”

Now, let’s stop for a second. Lovinger is not referring to the standard scatological s-word, so perhaps you’d like to take a guess at what this barbaric word is before you continue reading.  To encourage you to do so, I’ve placed the answer below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Fourth of July found me, like any stereotypical red-blooded American male, in front of a grill cooking meats during the day and in the living room playing Cranium once night set in. The game was going well, in that my team was beating the other two, but then one of the other teams got a trivia question asking “What animal is in the Elmer’s Glue logo?” and my world turned upside-down.

Here's the Elmer's logo, in case you don't remember kindergarten.

The asked team answered “cow”, to which I helpfully added “duh”. But the asking team said, “No, it’s a bull. Cows are female,” and the asked team all nodded their heads sadly in agreement. I was confused; sure, cow can refer to a specifically female animal, but I speak of cows all the time without knowing their gender. I can’t remember how the rest of the game turned out*, because from that point on, I couldn’t stop thinking about the best word to refer to a single animal of the species Bos primigenius taurus.

A week passed, and I’d pretty much forgotten about the cow question, aside from a subconscious cattle-directed malaise that prevented me from enjoying lolcows or Cow Appreciation Day at Chick-fil-A.



And then, on a lark, I was perusing the blog Starlingford Chronicles, and found this recent post asking the same question that my infuriatingly persistent subconscious was asking. With the question returned to the forefront of my mind, either I had to settle it or it would settle me.

So I went straight to my shelf of grammar books to see how others had settled the question. Alas, it appears that grammar books are now intended for the unlanded elite, containing virtually no information about farm animals. I was surprised to see that even grammar books ignore the plight of the modern farmer. Thus, like the farmer, we must strike out on our own to find the answer. Let’s start by looking at the word cattle.

Cattle, the OED says, comes from Middle English catel, which is an adoption into English of the same word in Old Northern French, which in turn comes from the Latin capitale. This is the same Latin word that gives us Modern English capital; the divergent meanings are the result of a fairly interesting semantic drift.

First cattle referred to any wealth or property, then more specifically in feudal times it referred to “movable” wealth, which at the time was pretty much limited to livestock. By 1500, cattle was almost exclusively used to refer to livestock. Back then, it could refer to any type of livestock or any mixtures of kinds of livestock, and thus we see examples like:

(1a) Is wool thy care? Let not thy cattle go / Where bushes are, where Burs and Thistles grow [Dryden, 1697]

(1b) By cattle, in this act, is to be understood any bull, cow, ox, steer, bullock, heifer, calf, sheep, and lamb, and no other cattle whatever. [UK Parliament, 1741-2]

(1c) […] among all manner of bovine, swinish and feathered cattle. [Carlyle, 1830]

Between then and now, the general livestock meaning lost out to the more specific meaning of a bovine, as in this OED attestation from 1836:

(2) In the usual acceptation of the word [cattle] it is confined to the ox.

Unfortunately, cattle entered the English language strictly as a mass noun, much like its sibling capital**. (Mass nouns, if you aren’t familiar with the term, are words like milk or money that lack a grammatical number and resist being treated as a singular noun, as in the ungrammatical *a money.) Because these words were borrowed into English as mass nouns, they didn’t come with countable versions. That’s not surprising for capital, as it’s not something easily quantized — there isn’t really a unit of capital — but (bovine) cattle has an obvious unit: a single animal.

Why hasn’t cattle been countified then? Well, there’re two common ways of creating a count noun from a mass noun. The simpler is to just use the mass noun into a count noun as-is; this has happened for many people with e-mail, which came from the mass noun mail, but now is often used as a count noun (“I sent an e-mail about that”). It’s also common for food and drink (“I’ll have an orange juice.”) In theory, this could be done for cattle, and it is occasionally. Google shows 460k hits for the phrase “a cattle is”, but most of these look to be from countries or writers for whom English is a second language.

The second method is to create a phrase with an explicit quantity stated for the mass noun. This is pretty common for inherently quantized mass nouns: a grain of rice, a blade of grass, a piece of mail, etc. Cattle does have such a phrase, the technical term head of cattle, but it’s jargonic, generally limited to encyclopedias and agricultural reports.

Neither of the countified versions of cattle have caught on in standard speech. That leaves us to seek out count nouns that are not derived from cattle. Here the problem is either over- or under-specificity. Cow is the word I’ve always used, but technically speaking, cow can denote the female from a range of species, including elephants, alligators, dolphins, whales, and Komodo dragons (if Wikipedia is to be trusted). Bulls are always male and calves always young, even informally, and they also suffer from the same ambiguity in what species they are. There’re a bunch of very specific terms, such as heifer, ox, steer, micky, yearling, or pollard, but using them correctly requires substantially more bovine familiarity than most of us have. And speaking of bovine, even it doesn’t quite work, because technically speaking, bovines aren’t strictly cattle; bison are generally considered bovine as well.

So with all of that out there, what do you do the next time you’re driving down the road and you notice a farm with a lonely Bos primigenius taurus standing on a hillside?

A cow?

"What did you call me?"

You can go ahead and inform your carmates that “there’s a head of cattle on that hill”, but unless they’re ranchers, they’ll probably think you’re describing a gruesome bovine decapitation. You can squint and try to determine at 50 miles per hour the gender of the animal, or even go for the gold and assess its age and (if female) the number of calves it’s had in order to ensure that you’re calling a heifer a heifer. You can point out the “bovine” to the other humans in the car, but you’ll be being both technically imprecise and strangely formal, so your friends may suspect you of being a robot.

Or you can accept the standard informal usage and mention the cow. Is it technically accurate? Potentially not, although you’ve got around a 50% chance. Unfortunately, all your other options are potentially inaccurate or overly technical. Cow at least has the advantage of being widely accepted as a general term in various dictionaries. And there are even attestations of the technically paradoxical “male cow” and technically redundant “female cow” on the web.

English has a hole here, and it’s up to you how you want to fill it. Unless you’re playing Cranium, of course.

Summary: Cattle doesn’t have a singular form, aside from the technical term head of cattle. There isn’t a single word that means specifically a single cattle of unstated gender and age. As such, even though it’s technically inaccurate, cow is generally used in informal situations as the singular form of cattle.

[Update 07/13: Anndra in the comments noted that Scots use the word beast as the genderless singular of cattle. This reminded me that there is a word that is specific to a bovine animal and is genderless and ageless: neat, as in neatfoot oil. Unfortunately, beast is of limited geographical reach, and neat is archaic, although I might try to adopt one or both into my lexicon all the same.]

*: Okay, I can. We lost.

**: Of course, this is in reference to capital meaning to money, wealth, etc., as in capitalism. Capital can be a count noun when it refers to the head of a column or an upper-case letter.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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