Tuesday, August 02, 2016


Last month Linguist Laura wrote a blog post congratulating the students who were graduating from her program(me). She discusses graduate, then moves on to alumni, excerpted below. I've highlighting the bit that was news to me.
My undergraduate alma mater
Go Minutemen! Go Minutewomen!
When the graduands morph into graduates, they also become alumni, another Latin word. It's plural, in that form, and pedants will have know[n] that the singular is alumnus or alumna, depending on whether you're male or female. Again, this is a bit annoying for English speakers who don't really bother that much with gender other than pronouns, [...]

Normal procedure when removing gender distinction is to go with the male for everyone: actors and actresses become actors, lady doctors become doctors, and so on. With alumni, we're taking to using the plural form for everyone. You're an alumni once you graduate. This ever so slightly grates on me but I am a good linguist and a descriptivist and do not go around correcting people. I don't know why we use the plural. We're familiar with this in words like cactus/cacti so we might have used alumnus as the singular; we just didn't. Perhaps it's because we use alumni in the plural way more often than the singular and, as it's not that common a word, that's the one that stuck.
I am not sure who the we is here. Laura's department? English speakers? It seems to me it's British English speakers, as in my experience Americans haven't adopted the plural as a singular.

First, Americans use the gendered singulars. I looked for an alumn* of in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE) in order to get only singular instances:

(I checked the one that says alumni* and it's by a graduate of The Open University [UK] who uses the word maths, so I have mentally flipped it into the GB column.)

In AmE singular alumni amounts to about 9% of the total, but in BrE it's about 22% (and in Canadian English, it's 35%). Note the lack of alumna in BrE.

When Americans want to avoid the gendered Latin terms, we often hack off the Latin suffix. I am an alum of the University of Massachusetts. I am friends with many of my fellow alums.

The word looks odd and is hard to pronounce if you don't know that it's a clipped form. It is not a homophone with the astringent chemical alum. The chemical is A-lum, the graduate is a-LUM, following the stress pattern of the suffixed form. I've also seen it spel{led/t} alumn and I kind of like that better. (There are 6 instances of alumn in GloWBE, 5 American and one that is classifed as GB, but when you look it's from an organi{s/z}ation in New York. None of these is in the phrase an alumn of, so they aren't included the numbers below.)

An alum of gets 10 hits in the US and 2 in GB (all legitimate; plus one Canadian hit, for those keeping track). If we add these to the numbers in the chart above, we get the following proportions:

a ___ of AmE BrE
gendered singular alumna/us 81% 75%
plural-form singular
8% 21%
clipped singular
11% 4%
total number 88 52

Now, if you worked at a college/university in the US, I am quite sure that you would hear alum much more than you'd hear singular alumni. I had a quick look in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which showed twice as many an alum of as an alumni of (though the numbers were small--21 in total).

So, a few points of unseemly defensiveness after all this:
  • Americans are able to and do use the Latin gendered suffixes. I mention this because there seems to be some belief that the British know Latin better than Americans do.  One of the interviewees in Jones's book on English expats in the US says she felt "she got to win a lot of arguments" because Americans assume “I [have] this great level of culture [and speak] and read fluent Latin” though of course she didn't. Similarly, I've had it said to me that Americans make barbarous "false" Latin words because we aren't close enough to the language. An British commentator on early American accents wrote that "Americans do not, however, speak or pronounce English according to our standard; [...] probably from a want of any intimate knowledge of Greek or Latin." I can't see much evidence for thinking the contemporary British folk have some access to Latin that contemporary Americans don't. Latin comes and goes in both American and British schools. Yes, the fancy public (i.e. private) schools of Britain do tend to offer Latin, but so did my run-of-the-mill American high school. Very few schools anywhere require it (or even offer it) any more--though apparently it's popular with American home-schoolers.
  • If you see Latin plurals masquerading as singulars, it's not a case of "American political correctness" coming over and "ruining" the language. The British are very capable of being sensitive to gender discrimination and changing the language themselves.  
The other thing to notice is that Americans use these words more. In fact, Americans have a great head start on using them. This is not necessarily a bragging point. The reason Americans needed these words earlier is that American universities have long depended on their graduates' generosity.

That was not an issue for British universities, which until recently were funded mainly through government grants. While I've lived in the UK, I've seen tuition fees go from 0 to over £9000 per year. And it was only once the government stopped directly funding university teaching that universities needed to step up relations with their graduates in the hope of getting donations and bequests. That's when my university got an Alumni Relations Office, something any American university would have had decades earlier.

Americans, I would say, have a keener sense of alumnihood. They have stickers identifying their alma mater in the back windows of their cars. The phrase alma mater is about four times more common in AmE than BrE (in GloWBE). They go to homecoming. They follow their institution's sports teams for the rest of their lives. (The need to keep alumni involved is a big reason for American universities having so much sporty activity.) They might even know their college's/university's song. That's in general, of course. I can't say I do any of those things. But I know many more Americans than Britons who do. 


Murphy's Law said...

I recently received a fund-raising letter from my daughter's university (a large public school on the east coast) referring to my daughter as " A future alumni". I sent back the letter with a comment about grammar but no check.

Eloise said...

All of my former universities (here in the UK) run schemes to keep in touch with graduates. None of them call me an alumnus/alumna/alumni fortunately. They don't call themselves my alma mater either.

The only thing I can see in favour of using alumni as the singular is you get around having to gender alumnus/alumna correctly or using forms such as latinx which I've seen when you're being inclusive of latino/latina people. I think alumnx is probably worse even if it grates on the grammar nerves less.

I'm not sure if there's a BrE/AmE difference but I've noticed a common usage of they or them in the singular in place of "he or she" so I guess alumni is doing the same thing?

It's a reverse of the much more common abuse of bacteria, data and the like, all good plurals that people use as if they are singulars. And the cringe-inducing stadiums, forums and the like.

Alon said...

I've also seen it spel{led/t} alumn and I kind of like that better.

The OED has an entry for alum(n), which it lists as ‘Chiefly US’. All attestations but the earliest one, a 19th-century translation by a Scot that uses the alumn form, are American. The final <n> seems to have gone the way of the dodo by the 1920s.

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

Talking of "grating somewhat", have you covered "undergraduate degrees"? Fair enough for courses but when they have been done you become a graduate so " I did my undergraduate degree at..." still sounds strange to me. No good fighting it, it seems established in UK but I think started in he US, didn't it? Years ago American friend talked of our primary school children "graduating" and I smiled but now I see they have graduation and Proms!

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

Talking of "grating somewhat", have you covered "undergraduate degrees"? Fair enough for courses but when they have been done you become a graduate so " I did my undergraduate degree at..." still sounds strange to me. No good fighting it, it seems established in UK but I think started in he US, didn't it? Years ago American friend talked of our primary school children "graduating" and I smiled but now I see they have graduation and Proms!

lynneguist said...

Clydesdale Jefferson: that's a very British thing to say, and it struck me when I first came here. Americans say they 'went to school at...' "Did my degree at" is 14:1 BrE on GloWBE.

Eloise said...

Clydesdale, although I don't dig it out in everyday conversation, as a Brit I don't really have another way to talk about the collection of degrees and postgraduate certificates and so on. So, I did my undergraduate degree at... my PhD at... my PGCE at... and so on.

It's possibly strange because depending on your generation doing degrees was rare. When I was at school (that's the British version) only about 15-20% of people went on to do a degree and if you're a decade older it was only 10%. Now it's closer to 45-50% do an undergraduate degree and something like 10-15% are doing a second degree of some kind. So even outside academia you're coming across people with two degrees reasonably often whereas even 20 years ago it was pretty rare.

Giddy said...

When I purchased license plate holder from my alma mater many years ago, I was quite careful not to buy the one that said "UCLA Alumni" because it would have bothered me to know that I'm the only one in the car who attended UCLA. My parents, on the other hand, met in college so that particular holder would be ok for their car. The number of "XYZ Alumni" license plate holders I see on the road would suggest that Linguist Laura's analysis is fairly true at least for purchasers of license plate holders, even if we AmE speakers tend to just say alum in conversation.

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

Thanks, Eloise. What about "first degree"? That is, I think Lynne, what was usual in BrE until quite recently. Another "Différence Which Was"?

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

Yes, Lynne, despite that acute accent on "Difference" (where did that come from?), I am British - very, some might say. But you wouldn't want me to pretend to be anything else, I'm sure, or my comments would have little value - or even less?

Eloise said...

If someone said first degree I'd understand it, I don't think I'd say it.

It might be a change in how universities talk about them, but there was (to the postgrads anyway) a clear and frequently reinforced difference between undergraduate work and postgraduate work and so on, so it's an undergraduate degree in my mind now.

That doesn't seem to be unique to my second university. Quite a high proportion of my friends have PhDs and did their BScs and PhDs at British universities and they all seem to use the same "Undergraduate degree" terminology. One did a BA in the US and a PhD over here but uses the same terminology when talking about degrees, but talks about "going to school" to mean her first university in the AmE way.

Steve Dunham said...

I don't think I (AmE) have heard "alumni" used as singular; if I did, I probably would have supposed it was a mistake by someone trying to use Latin and fumbling it. I do hear and readily understand "alum."

lynneguist said...

Clydesdale: It came from people needing to talk about something. 'Do' has various uses in BrE that it doesn't in AmE. It seems it was just a handy word to have (a)round when people in numbers needed to start talking about having finished their university studies.

'First degree' is absolutely BrE. Never heard it before moving away from US. I still feel a bit funny when I say it.

The British are very good at changing their English with no help from anyone else! :)

lynneguist said...

And here's a nice British example of 'first degree':

1530 Tyndale Pract. Prelates sig. Eviiiv, When he taketh first degre he is sworne that he shall hold none opynion condemned by the church.

Seems to be in continuous use since the 16th century. It's just that nowadays a lot more people have one.

Kelvin Green said...

When I lived in the US I remember being surprised by how many people studied Latin at high school; here it seems to be restricted to posh private schools or the 1940's, which are more or less the same thing, but in the US it seemed quite common even in what I'd call a state school.

Tom Dawkes said...

it has to be recognised that plurals of Latin (and Greek) words are not consistently formed. Eloise calls "stadiums" and "forums" cringe-inducing, but "museums", for instance, should surely not be replaced by "musea"? And what is the genuine plural of "octopus"?

With nouns in "-us" there is also the problem of how to say the plural: should it rhyme with "me" — using an 'authentic'Latin pronunciation — or with "my" — using the traditional English pronunciation.

markn said...

I took four years of Latin in my (American) high school. As a result, I'm more pedantic about correct Latin usage than most people, but even I would not use stadia or fora when writing in English. After a word has been completely naturalized, it's not appropriate to insist on declining the word as is done in the original language (both "stadium" and "forum" have been used in English for over 300 years, in senses separate from their original meaning in Latin). After all, why stop at the nominative plural? Why not say "the stadii seats were comfortable" (genitive singular), or "I gave the stadio some money" (dative singular)? Answer: because we're speaking English, not Latin. I suspect the reason that "alumnus" hasn't been naturalized to use a native plural "alumnuses" is because it's used mainly in higher academic settings, where the speaker/writer and his audience are, or have been, familiar with Latin. It's still marked as "not naturalized" in the 1933 Oxford English Dictionary.

@Tom Dawkes, "octopus" is a tricky one because the -us ending is not from Latin, it a misspelling of Greek "oktopous". The correct English plural is "octopuses" although the Greek plural "octopodes" has sometimes been used. "Octopi" is purely an error, due to misinterpreting the ending as Latin rather than Greek.


Clydesdale Jefferson said...

Yes, Eloise, I think you are right. As I said it grates with me but I accept, as in many usages (Lynne will no doubt correct me), that BrE is adopting the AmE way.

John Cowan said...

I see there is no mention of alumnae so far. One problem is that many people pronounce alumni in a half-classical way, with final EE, which is the traditional pronunciation of alumnae. Back when women's-only colleges were more common, alumnae seems to have carried its freight, but I doubt if anyone uses it as the singular form today.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Do we even use the word "alumni" or any of its variants in the UK? I always thought it was an American word, and that a British university would speak of its graduates, or former students, or something....

Of course, it could be something that's crept in during the past few years, like a "prom" being an end-of-school dance as well as (though not, thankfully, instead of) a summer concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

Paul Dormer said...

On the matter of Latin plurals, I rather like the story I heard the previous time there was a referendum about the UK staying in the EU (or Common Market as it was then called). There had been some discussion in the press about whether the plural of referendum was referenda. Someone recalled a story from WWI of an officer asking some sappers if the they had "finished performing the experiment with the pendula."

"Yes sir," came the reply. "And we are now sitting on our ba doing our sa."

Laura said...

In Canada, it's quite common to hear "alumni" as the singular form, and it grates on me too! There certainly are people and organizations who use alumna/alumnus, but in my experience it's rare enough to act as a sort of grammatical shibboleth! If my university referred to me as "an alumni", I would consider that a poor reflection of their academic seriousness.

I think "alum" might be used less commonly here, but I can't back that up. I certainly do hear it occasionally, but in my experience people seem to use the full word (albeit incorrectly).

For my undergrad, I'd be just as likely to say "I went to school at X" or "I did my undergraduate degree at X", but I think it might depend on context. If someone asked me about my university, I'd say "I went to...", but if I were differentiating between my undergrad, my professional degree, and my postgrad certificates, I would say "I did my [insert type] at..."

biochemist said...

As a Brit, I would say 'I did my BSc (and PhD) at X university' ... whereas British medics usually say 'I trained at Y [university/medical school]'. Medics who then go on to do a PhD would probably then call that 'doing my PhD at Z university' because of course it is research rather than a training.
So, I understand from a comment upstream that the US 'homecoming' is what Brits might call a reunion? But on a wider scale than just one's graduating class?

Michael Dolbear said...

You can use stadia in English, it's a unit of distance (and also a kind of optical rangefinder, but let's ignore that).

1847 G. Grote Hist. Greece IV. ii. xxxvi. 418 He [sc. Artaphernes] caused the territory of each [Ionian] city to be measured by parasangs (each parasang was equal to thirty stadia, or about three miles and a half).

markn said...

Stadium was a unit of distance in ancient Greece, equal to 600 pous (the same Greek word meaning "foot" as appears in "oktopous"!). Actually "stadium" is the Latin version of the word; the Greek is stadion, although the plural in Greek is stadia, the same as in Latin. I believe that in English its use as a unit of distance is almost universally in translation of ancient Greek texts or in reference to such texts. In such usage, stadia seems ok since it's essentially being used as a foreign term.

David Crosbie said...

Much of the semantic space for alumnus used to be filled by old ....

This could be quite simply old boy to old girls.

Institutions which were — or would like to be — of some antiquity used nouns ostensibly derived from Latin adjectives (which usually never existed). Thus I could (though I don't choose to) identify myself as a Old Nottinhamian and an Old Hertfordian. Mind you, I don't think I could be called an Old Edinburger (though Edinburgh is a genuinely ancient university), still less an Old UCNW Bangoriaan.

To the best of my recollection, I was aware of alumnus and alumni when I was young — but as very rare words. Later, I came to see alumni as a relatively frequent American word. The BrE adoption seems pretty recent to me.

Because of the way I was familiarised, and because of my classical education, I would have no hesitation in saying alumnus or alumna — or even alumnae.

I have a nasty suspicion that alumni caught on in British universities for entirely commercial reasons: a fancy name denoting an important class of potential donors.

David Crosbie said...

As to the use of foreign -i plural as an English singular, there's an obvious parallel with panini: in Italian 'rolls', in English one instance of a particular sort of ironed-flat filled roll.

David Crosbie said...

I should have added:

Hence the often-seen plural paninis.

PW said...

Biochemist--from my experience in the western US, I would say you're partly correct about the difference between Homecoming and a reunion. Both terms are used, but they mean quite different things. A reunion is basically a party that happens at regular intervals (e.g. 5, 10, 20 years after graduation) to reunite a specific graduating class. Homecoming is a celebration that can involve anyone who ever attended the school. It is centered around an American football game, so it happens in the fall/autumn. It includes a formal dance that is almost exclusively attended by students currently going to classes at that school. It might also include other celebrations. One of my universities has a "Homecoming Spectacular" that features performances by all the university's performing arts groups. Again, in my experience, reunions are more common for what we call high school since that is a group of students who know each other well and want to see each other again, while Homecoming occurs at both the high school and college/university level.

Jon G said...


I can't help but be reminded of a line from the (American) TV show Archer:

"Do you expect me to believe that you're a descendant of Cornelius Tunt?"

"Yeah, or whatever, like five Cornelii..."


Christian Johnson said...

To add to PW's comment, most "reunions" in the US are indeed for a specific graduating year. But there's a twist for some of us on high school versus college. I attended a liberal arts college--which, as the article explains, has no real equivalent in the UK (or indeed almost anywhere). It was smaller than my high school and residential to boot. For this subset of tertiary schools, reunions are a Very Big Deal. My alma mater devotes a four-day weekend to them, always one week after graduation so that (a) most dorm rooms are available for attendees and (b) enough students/recent graduates are available to stay an extra week and work the reunion -- catering, guides, security, aiding the elderly, etc.

To me the chief problem with class reunions is the very fact that they're for a specific class year, and on a 5-year interval: if you were good friends with people in the surrounding classes, you're out of luck (or you'd have to go to the expense and bother of multiple reunions). Instead, you spend your reunion weekend with classes of alums who by definition you've never met during your four years in college. I graduated in 1990, so my reunion cycle is with the classes of 2010, 2005, 2000, 1995, 1990, 1985, etc.

I've heard of schools trying out spans of years, so that 1990-1995 will gather, and 2000-2005, etc. -- but the logistics would be difficult and people are used a 5-year rhythm. What some schools instead do as a supplement to the class reunions is host all-class reunions keyed to an activity or theme, which usually are much smaller and occur outside the class-reunion schedule. At my college, the LGBT alumni association hosts a reunion on campus every four years, which is a great way for me to meet up with at least some of the friends I never get to see at the class reunion. And it's during the school year, so it's easier to meet current students -- the ones who help during reunion are too busy working. I often discover have more in common with another gay alum who graduated in 1977 or 2014 than with a classmate who just happened to graduate the same year I did.

That was a big part of the reason I ignored most of my class reunions. I'd also had a disappointing experience at my 5th reunion: few of the people I'd lost touch with bothered to show up, even though most of them lived within an hour's drive while I flew halfway across the country. But one of my closest friends persuaded me to go to the 25th -- this time requiring me to fly just about halfway around the world -- and it was so good I regret taking the intervening years off.

High school, for me, is a separate story. I graduated from a big public/government/state high school in an area without a lot of geographic cohesion (lots of anonymous suburbs). Reunions are much less of a deal: usually one of those terribly eager people who were class officers when we were in school will set up a dinner. Historically they've often been on Thanksgiving weekend, since those of us who left town are often home and could use a bit of time away from family togetherness. But honestly, I'll go only if it's convenient. I'm in touch with most everyone I care about from then anyway and we have our own mini-reunions pretty regularly.

On the word "alumni" and its variants. I also attended a private high school that originally was a girl's school, but went co-ed in the 1970s. I still get the alumni newsletter even though my family moved away (and despite never giving a dime in donations, I didn't have a great experience there). It carefully refers to "alumni/alumnae," reflecting the hard feelings of some who wish it had remained single-sex.

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

Yes, David, on foreign plurals, you do often see "paninis" but are quite likely to see "panini's", too. In fact the apostrophe plural seems very likely to catch on with "foreign" plurals, starting with "potato's", "piano's", "mango's" etc.

Kate Bunting said...

I would dispute Linguist Laura's assertion that we are all familiar with "cactus/cacti". I've often heard people refer to "a cacti".

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

My point about apostrophe plurals for foreign nouns was that notions of correctness (Latin suffixes etc) do not really come into play as usage seems to be decided by pragmatic and often commercial pressures. Many market traders were told at school that you don't use apostrophes but, somehow it works, "it looks better" etc. In the same way I cringe at my "alumni card" or at UK primary schools now having "graduation" and even "Proms" but pressure and demand for these things from children (not "students" at age 11 but that is another lost BrE cause), parents, heads or, more likely now, managers/financial directors at the school will probably mean that they become part of UK culture too.

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

Yes, thanks, Lynne, nice comments and examples on "first degree". On being "very British", I agreed that I probably am. But now I wonder, especially after the "Brexit"'referendum. What does "British" mean? In education especially (Scotland has a separate and different system), I have to say "English". I think a lot of people from the other nations of the UK would have more problems with "very British". Commentators from outside the UK often lump the four nations together (all generalisations are false but, I know, necessary) in a way that can be misleading and may be objected to by more nationalistic or sensitive readers.

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

I know you, Lynne, are sensitive to the different systems and, indeed, Englishes in the UK but "British" is becoming more and more problematic with increased autonomy. The issue of Scottish independence is prominent again, centralisation is decreasing and there are calls for an English Parliament, or even Yorkshire or Cornwall ones. Interesting times in politics - and linguistics.

Simonx said...

I read Lynne's university motto as:
MINit-men and MYnute-women

What does that say about me?

naath said...

I'd use alumna, and indeed my college (Newnham, Cambridge; all female) uses alumnae (being the feminine plural) for us as a group. I'm not sure I feel excellent about the whole "women get subsumed into male words" thing, although I'm mostly resigned to it. It does go the other way sometimes - a "male nurse" is just a "nurse", and could we please ban "manny" (he's just a nanny).

wisob said...

To me (BrE) alumni is an irritating Americanism that my former (Oxford) college uses when it is trying to get money out of me... it definitely feels like a "new" word to me.
Being Oxford, a get-together for former students is called a gaudy - hence Dorothy L Sayers' novel Gaudy Night.

Eloise said...

I would also use Biochemist's construction, but only in an interview or a situation where the type of degree mattered I think. I would generally expand on it so "I did my BSc in BioMedical Sciences at ..."

I don't work in a field that's related to my degree any more, so people just want to know I've got a degree in general. Back in the days when I did use my PhD because it was obviously rather specialised (I was somewhere in the microbiology/immunology area) it didn't matter for the opposite reason - I wouldn't have an applicable PhD without a relevant BSc (or BA in Natural Sciences from somewhere like Cambridge) and so I didn't need to go into the details.

But perhaps this is a time related thing? As fashions in HE change the way people there talk about it change too? Although I'm still not referred to as an alumna or alumni by any of the three institutions whence I've graduated.

Steven said...

Here's a tangential issue related to "alumni" in the US vs. UK. I taught English in Japan years ago on a Japanese government sponsored program called the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Program(me). The JET Program(me) consists of participants from the US as well as UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, Korea, France, Germany, Jamaica, and several other countries I'm forgetting. A formal organization of former participants in this program formed in the US initially and now has chapters in all of the countries from which participants come. And it is known as the JET Alumni Association (JETAA). However, in the US we refer to members as fellow JET alumni or alums. But I've noticed in the UK, Australia, and NZ, they tend to use the term "ex-JETs" rather than alumni. I've asked members from those countries why they prefer "ex-JETs" and they say that to them the word "alumni" refers specifically to university. Whereas in the US and (I think) Canada, the word "alumni" is used more broadly to refer graduates of schools as well as organizations and companies. Just it might be of interest to share that.

vp said...

FWIW, Google N-grams confirm that "alumn{us|i} is more common in the US than the UK (I used "old boy(s)" as a control).

vic said...

Giddy, did you ever find a "UCLA Alumnus" license plate frame? I've never seen a license plate frame or a rear-window decal which says alumnus or alumna, just alumni. I'm a UCLA dropout, so never looked for such a thing. But I did take Latin in high school.

I did a google image search for "alumnus license plate frame" and all it returned were alumni frames


Paul Dormer said...

And, on cue, I've just received an e-mail from my old university (in the UK) inviting me to "Join our biggest alumni event near you!".

The nearest one to me appears to be a pub night in London next month.

Nick said...

Lynne, are you inadvertently touching on another BrE/AmE difference here? I would rarely hear "I'm an alum of..." in the US only because I'd hear "I'm a Harvard alum," "I'm a Stanford alum," "I'm a UCLA alum," "I'm a Virginia alum," etc. It would sound downright strange to hear "I'm an alum of UCLA."

Flip side of the coin, it would sound very British at all to these American ears to hear someone across the pond tell me they were "an Oxford alum" or even "a Cambridge alumni." It would seem to me BrE prefers "Alum* of X" where as AmE prefers "X Alum*"

When AmE does use the Latin form, I do suspect it's in the "Alum* of X" formal usage rather than "X Alum*" use: "I'm an alumnus of Columbia," "She's an alumna of Barnard," etc. but I would say those are very rare usages indeed.

Thoughts? Am I on to something or do the British use "X Alum*" as frequently as Americans do? (And is this in any way related to the way the British interchange "University of Cambridge" and "Cambridge University" where a university name in the US is fixed?)

Nick said...

^^ correction, "it would NOT sound very British at all..."

Boris Zakharin said...

As an alumnus in the US, I hear (and read) the singular seldom enough that I can't tell you what people actually say. I would personally say "alumnus" (actually I just did in the previous sentence), but I had a vague idea that I've seen (or heard?) "alumni" as a singular here. As for "alum", I've never seen it with an "n" and have always thought it was pronounced with the stress on the first syllable. Also "did my degree at" doesn't sound all that odd to me.

Latin plurals are a strange thing. There seems to be no pattern as to which words use them and which don't, but I think most don't. Certainly not stadia musea, or fora, but maybe sometimes symposia. And octopus and virus don't actually have Latin plurals, so the only real option is "octopuses" and "viruses".

As for Latin (or other borrowed) plurals becoming singular, I feel like a lot of them are mass nouns (like data) or where singular is rare (like bacteria or macaroni and I guess alumni to some people). What I'm less tolerant to is attaching an "s" plural to a plural use as a singular. Heck, I have to remind myself that Ferengi(s) are made up aliens in order to not cringe at the "s" plural.

EK said...

I'm in the U.S., I would usually call an undergraduate degree a bachelor's degree. And a two year undergraduate degree is an associate's degree.

Anonymous said...

Like EK, I'm in the U.S. and would say "bachelor's degree" or "baccalaureate". I suspect that has something to do with my age -- mid 60s. EK's mileage may vary, of course.

I'm another one of those Americans who had 4 years of Latin in high school, so I'm inclined to use alumna/ae and alumnus/i in formal or formal-ish writing. Conversationally? Alum.

I'd be happy if we adopted alum(s) for formal as well as informal use. The "correct" Latin forms now seem fussy and snobbish, but apparently I'm still fussy and snobbish enough to find alumni as a plural a bit jarring.

Rachael said...

Just this afternoon I read an article in the newsletter from my former sixth form college about an "alumna" of theirs, who, judging by the name and photo, was male. I would expect the opposite error to be more common: referring to women with the more familiar masculine terms.

Anonymous said...

Ack. Meant alumni as a singular jarring, of course.

wisob said...

I don't think a British person would use alumni /alumnus/ alum (which I'd never come across until reading this blog) at all. We'd say "I did my (XYZ) degree at..." or "I studied at...".

Roy said...

I saw this in a collection of similar stuff:

"What's a nice graffito like you doing on a wall like this?"

So, is the plural of "espresso", "espressi"?

Nell said...

Bit late to the party on this one, but my old college (at a British collegiate university) refers to all its old students as “alumnae”, whether male or female. This was a conscious decision – until the late 1970s it was an all-female college, but was mixed by the time I arrived, but this is in order to honour their all-female roots. I am not sure how long this will last though! But I wouldn’t describe myself an “an alumna of…”, I would normally say “I was at…” or “I went to…”.

And as for the description of my degree, I would always say “first degree”, never “undergraduate degree”. It just confuses people if I describe it as an MA as I’m a scientist.

Nell said...

And a PS: I've just spotted this on Twitter, from a UK university:

Best of luck to UWE Bristol alumnus @PeteReed who competes in the Men's Eight Rowing final

Roberta Davies said...

I would also say "first degree" or, more probably, "bachelor's degree". I'm not comfortable with alumnus/alumna, so would call myself "a graduate of ..." (in my case, the Open University).

I don't think anyone's ever come up with a traditional "Old ..." version for the OU! An Old Openonian?

The OU's official group for graduates -- which is partially about keeping people interested in the university, including asking for donations -- is the OU Alumni Association. But there's also an Association of OU Graduates, which is essentially a university-backed society. So you can be an alumnus or a graduate, or both.

Anonymous said...

I am always reminded of the scene in the film version of Orlando where the bailiffs advise the now gender-swapped Orlando to "remain incognito...or incognita, as the case may be"

Anonymous said...

Twenty years ago, my dad would grumble every time he got a letter from the alumni association of his alma mater (in California), which used alumni as both singular and plural. This university's bookshop still sells lots of "alumni" labeled gear.

Perry said...

Hm, interesting. South African here and I don't think I've ever heard alumni used as a singular.