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January 08, 2008  |  When in English, do like English  |  94343 hit(s)

Nancy Friedman has an amusing post in her blog about the much-discussed, much-hesitated-over plural of the Toyota Prius. Priuses? Prii? As she quotes one guy in her post, perhaps even the apparently grammatically correct (in Latin) Priora?

These kinds of discussions can be fun, but they have a certain angels-on-pins quality to them. The plural of Prius is not Prii. No. The default, natural plural is Priuses. Why? Because adding -(e)s to nouns is how we form the plural in English.

This gives me cause to state my manifesto about words from other languages, which is this: once a word has accepted an invitation into English, it plays by English rules. It does not get to bring along its native inflections and conjugations and irregular declensions. Stated another way, English speakers who have a shiny new word to play with are not expected to also know the morphological rules of the language which has so kindly sent us a word. We do not have to know noun declensions in Latin, or how plurals are formed in Greek, or how verbs work in French in order to take up words from those languages. You don't need to know those languages to speak English.

If you find yourself wavering on this question, consider the plural in English of the following words:

  • Blitzkrieg
  • bratwurst
  • corgi
  • corpus
  • dachshund
  • debutante
  • emir
  • falafel
  • jar
  • hamburger
  • Kindergarten
  • maven
  • octopus
  • opera
  • opus
  • phobia
  • piroshki
  • rickshaw
  • schmuck
  • telephone
  • tsunami
  • tycoon
  • Weltschmerz
  • yen

Now, if you believe that the plural of Prius is Prii, you're going to need to tell me the plural of the words in that list, which are originally and variously from Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Latin, Russian, Welsh, and Yiddish. (For the curious, the German plurals are Bratwürste, Kindergärten, Weltschmerzen, Dachshunde, and Blitzkriege. And as a point of interest Hamburger is an adjective in German; it's not even a noun. I won't mess with the other languages because—to reiterate my point—I don't know those languages, so why should I know the native verbal judo for those nouns?) If you're a stickler for Prii (or Priora), I sure hope you got all those plurals right.

For that matter, what's the plural of ox? Ha, got you, I bet ... you had to stop and think about it, didn't you? Historically, etymologically, it's oxen, using a plural form that's archaic and moribund (see also: children, and for that matter Weltschmerzen). If you don't happen to work with oxen all day, as you might not, you probably have so little cause to use the term that you might even revert to modern-day English practice and call it oxes. And as far as I'm concerned, that's perfectly fine, because why should you, after all, have to know the morphological rules of Anglo-Saxon, which has been dead for 700 years ...

Eric Lippert   09 Jan 08 - 9:54 AM

Surely you would not deny me the pleasure of correcting those poor misguided souls who say "octopi". (Ah, pedantry -- the eternal triumph of accuracy over tact.) Since "octopus" is of Greek origin, obviously the plural would be "octopodes", which has the delightful pronunciation "octopuddies". Oooh, look at the little octopuddies! I tot I taw an octopuddies-cat!


Fine, octopusses it is.

And by the way, the proper plural of XBox should be XBoxen, not that you asked.

Eric Lippert   09 Jan 08 - 9:58 AM

And finally, of course, q.v. your 2004 comments on the morphology of -en on my blog: http://blogs.msdn.com/ericlippert/archive/2004/12/08/ologiology.aspx

mike   09 Jan 08 - 10:44 AM

>deny me the pleasure

Oh, not at all. Hence: "... can be fun ..."

>your 2004 comments on the morphology of -en on my blog

Fortunately (for me), it looks like I qualified my comments there with "for effect." :-)


If that's what you and your gaming brethren settle on, that's ok by me, heh.

JerryW   09 Jan 08 - 12:45 PM

I love the way you are so certain what the correct answer is.

I believe "Prius" in the sense that Toyota use it is a manufactured word. Therefore, the correct plural of it is whatever Toyota say it is.

The word "prius" in a real language - at least in Latin, as its appearance immediately leads everyone to assume - is an adverb and carries no plural


mike   09 Jan 08 - 5:53 PM

[...] the correct plural of it is whatever Toyota say it is.

I disagree. Toyota owns the trademark, but AFAIK they have neither legal nor linguistic authority over how the word is declined. (In fact, do they even have an opinion about the plural of the word?) If they have legal rights to the declensions, they could sue someone for using the "wrong" plural; I for one have never heard of such a case. As for ultimate linguistic authority, no one has that in the English-speaking world. The Taser folks might think they get to tell us whether someone got tased or tasered, but a lexicographer is going to record what people actually say rather than consulting with the company's PR department. And then there was the silly attempt by a certain arched corporation to try to get dictionary writers to change the definition of McJob (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004324.html) ...

[...] you're so sure

I have a strong opinion about the plural of Prius, that's true. What I'm certain about are the regular rules in English for forming the plural. It's conceivable that people will decide, as they do, that the plural of Prius is something else, perhaps Prii. That could happen, tho it's unlikely; in that case, speakers will have selected an irregular plural (the particle -i as a plural ending is entirely unproductive in English), and I will prove to have been holding an incorrect opinion. It wouldn't be the first time.

[to be continued ...]

mike   09 Jan 08 - 5:54 PM

[continued ...]

[...] The word "prius" in a real language is an adverb and carries no plural

That's Latin, this is English. The name Prius has all the characteristics of a noun: it can take articles -- a Prius, the Prius -- and it is eminently pluralizable (assuming we can settle on a form), so we apply noun rules to it. My point is that when a term is borrowed, its role and morphology in its source language does not necessarily obtain in the new language:
  • In Spanish, the asada part of carne asada is an adjective ("roasted"). However, the term has been imported into English as a compound noun, and you'll have no problem finding examples of carne asadas.

  • Hamburger, frankfurter, and wiener are adjectives in German, nouns in English.

  • Opera is the plural of opus, but we use it as a singular noun in English.

  • Allegro is an adverb in Italian, can be used as a noun in English.

  • Habeas corpus is a verbal phrase in Latin, can act as a noun in English.
In any event, Toyota can easily claim to have invented the name and that any resemblance to words in another language, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Mazda used to have a model named Millenia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_Millenia), which a Latin speaker might say uses a plural form to label a singular vehicle. WTF? Nonetheless, if you went out and bought two of them, you could say that you own two Millenias, and who's to say that's wrong?

goofy   10 Jan 08 - 8:01 AM

"bus" is a contraction of "omnibus", which is already plural in Latin (the dative plural of omnis). If only Latin was still taught in schools we could avoid this butchering of the English language.

secretGeek   11 Jan 08 - 5:59 AM

i read this post a couple of days back and i'm still thinking about it.

thought you'd wanna know that ;-)

(and rather than 'What is 4 + 14?' why not have 'what is the preferred plural for Ox according to mike pope?')

and this also, ofcourse launched my mind into recalling an old poem that picks up with something like

"if the plural of ox is oxen not oxes
then the plural of box is boxen not boxes..."

and so on with much hilarity.

Chris   07 Jul 08 - 11:46 PM

If you argue that words taken into English must play by English rules, you might want to look through your list again: I, for one, have never heard the plural of yen expressed as yens (but then, I've never heard anyone pluralise ox to anything other than oxen either, so perhaps our socio-linguistic situations are too disparate).

Would you also argue that those English words that are exceptions to the normal grammar be made to conform? Should we be talking about sheeps, deers, childs, tooths, foots and mouses? How about lifes, wolfs, analysises, phenomenons and thesises?

Plural forms are always going to be determined by what the majority is used to or comfortable with, with a tendency towards laziness. Very few people are going to bother with Priora when Priuses is perfectly functional. However, that doesn't mean that words adopted into English should use regular plural forms; it simply means that they are likely to.

mike   08 Jul 08 - 1:30 AM

>Would you also argue that those English words that are exceptions to the
>normal grammar be made to conform? Should we be talking about sheeps,
>deers, childs, tooths, foots and mouses? How about lifes, wolfs,
>analysises, phenomenons and thesises?

Um, no. Those words are based on rules for forming plurals that were once productive but no longer are. When words are coined (or borrowed) in English now, they follow the rules of adding -s/-es to form the plural. (Yen is an interesting exception, but that's what it is -- an exception, not an example of a common method for sussing out the plurals of borrowed nouns.)

You won't have any trouble finding examples of thesises (Google, about 40K hits), phenomenons (354K), or analysises (18K). People who have been schooled in the Standard English plurals for these words -- and that's what it takes, namely schooling -- might find these formations risible, but they just represent English speakers following the rules that are strongly established in the language.

As for oxen, I might have heard someone actually that word in conversation maybe a dozen times in my life. (Reading, more often, but written text gets edited.) Google blog search does indeed turn up examples of oxes:


mike   08 Jul 08 - 1:31 AM

Incidentally, where does "laziness" come into it? If you don't pluralize opus to opera, are you lazy? Why?

The original point was that for the supercilious to insist on word formations that are not native to English is silly. If someone wants to show off that they learned noun declensions in Latin, hey, great for them. But to then sniff when a word borrowed into Engish isn't being used "properly" -- i.e., according to the rules of another language -- is linguistic snobbery.

mishery   10 Jul 08 - 2:52 AM

Not sure about US English but in British English, dropping off the plural marker for "pound" and for non-metric measures occurs in many dialects. "It cost three thousand pound" and "10 yard of cloth" etc. So "three thousand yen" doesn't sound odd to me. Of course a lot of languages don't mark plurals after numbers so this ain't that strange cos in a sense three thousand pounds is double marking of plurality.

Adrian   05 Dec 11 - 5:43 AM

I agree with you, Mike, and I think any discussion about what the plural of Prius should be is faintly ludicrous unless it's just for fun. Words adopted into English are English words, and over time the plural, pronunciation, etc. settle down independently of the original language.

The -s ending fits well with most "foreign" words, so that there is no need to baulk at buses, stadiums, viruses, indexes, etc. I think a few words, e.g. phenomenon, crisis, do sound bad with the -s ending, which will be one reason the standard English plurals (phenomena, crises) are more resistant to simplification.