'Casus Belli' Ignites Linguistic Wars

Rob Kyff on

Latin plurals have been a casus belli (justification for war) among English speakers for centuries. For example, if you want to start a fistfight, ask two people for the plural of casus belli. Cassi belli? Casus bellis? Cassius' belly? (Which presumably was small because Cassius had a lean and hungry look.)

In fact, the plural of casus belli is the same as its singular: casus belli. And, in case you're wondering, the two most common pronunciations are KAH-suss BELL-ee and KAY-suss BELL-eye.

Other Latin plurals that start fights are:

-- alumnae/alumni -- Let's start with the easy part: Alumnae (pronounced al-um-NEE) is the plural of alumna and refers to female graduates. Alumni (pronounced al-um-NYE) is the plural of "alumnus" and refers to male graduates.

Now comes the tricky part. Traditionally, colleges have used "alumni" to refer to both male and female graduates, but this use of the male plural for both genders is now frowned upon as sexist.

Thus many colleges now use "alumni/ae" or "alumni and alumnae," and others avoid the issue entirely by using "alums," "graduates" or the magnificently succinct "formerly enrolled students of both genders who might or might not have graduated."

-- antennae/antennas -- When you're talking about the plural of those long things sticking out of insects' heads, you should use the Latin plural antennae, pronounced an-TEN-ee. For instance, in "Departmental," a poem about ants, Robert Frost demonstrated the correct plural and pronunciation of antennae when he rhymed it with "any."


But when you're referring to the metal device that sends or receives radio waves, use the Anglicized plural antennas, not antennae. This sentence from a newspaper story, for instance, might lead you to suspect that state troopers were driving VW "bugs": "Most other state police cruisers have long whip antennae and chrome spotlights."

-- bacterium/bacteria -- While scientists and academics generally distinguish between the singular "bacterium" and plural "bacteria," journalists and broadcasters often use "bacteria" as a singular noun and "bacterias" as a plural noun.

A writer for The New York Times tried to have it both ways: "The bacteria that causes Lyme disease has been found in mosquitoes ... But there is no evidence that mosquitoes are efficient hosts or transmitters of the bacterium."

Use "bacterium/bacteria" and you'll remain immune to this bacterial infection.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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