If I ask you to think of one octopus, then of two, of three even – what word comes to your mind as the plural form of ‘octopus’? If you were to think about your choice longer, is there another word you could use for the same purpose? In theory, you could come up with three options. The plurals octopuses, octopi, and octopodes are all attested in English, and thus could all be used to refer to more than one octopus.
When you look at these plurals from a purely descriptive point of view, they are thus equally useful and acceptable. However, to prescriptivists some of the plurals are better than others. In advisory books about language usage, in so-called usage guides, the authors usually express their preference of one usage over the other. The Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Henry Watson Fowler, 1926) advises the reader to use ‘octopuses’ for example.
The HUGE database that Robin Straaijer and I have been working on in the context of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project includes excerpts from dozens of usage guides like Fowlers’ one. In my English Today feature, ‘A Fuss about the Octopus’, I discuss the results of searching this database of usage guides and usage problems for pieces of advice about the plural of octopus. Whether or not there is evidence for a link between people’s actual usage of the plurals on the one hand and the prescriptive advice provided in usage guides on the other, is something that is touched upon in the article too.
- to the HUGE database: http://bridgingtheunbridgeable.com/hugedb/
- to the homepage of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project: http://bridgingtheunbridgeable.com
- to read more about the collaboration between English Today and Bridging the Unbridgeable