Deirdre Saoirse Moen

Sounds Like Weird

Rails and Pluralization, Part II

27 August 2005

So it turns out that some of the disputes about pluralization stem from how certain words are pluralized.

Rails uses English for pluralization rules, but English has two major spellings (British and American) and many variants within that. Within American usage, there’s significant variations based on the age at which one was taught and how conservative the usage was where one was taught.

When I was in grad school in a writing program, I wrote a story that included the word “traveller.” One of my critique group buddies, a public school teacher, pointed out that I needed to use a spellchecker because it was wrong. Well, it’s not wrong, it’s just no longer a “preferred” American spelling.

Note: travel -> traveled (variation: travelled). Prefer -> preferred (no variation). In British English, it’s travel -> travelled.

So, we were going to talk about plurals, weren’t we?

Jokes about the plural of mongoose aside, some plurals aren’t as easy as you think. Like my example above, they vary based on region, one’s age, and the pedantry of one’s instructors.

For example, while “data” is correctly only a plural, common American usage uses it as a singular as well. And don’t get me started on multimedia. Ugh. All media are multi.

How about the plural of the poor little eight, well, we typically call them legs, tentacled creature? There’s three possible candidates: octopuses (the simple plural), octopi, and octopodes.

While octopi was in fashion for a while, it is a Latin-formed plural on a Greek-based word. (Sorry, I just have to say this: the horror!)

Some people say octopodes is the correct plural. Personally, I think this is confusing for two reasons:

  1. Octopus belongs to the order Octopoda in the cephalopod family. Depending on who you talk to around the world, people refer to the octopus’s limbs as “feet,” “legs,” “arms,” or “tentacles.” If you’ve read the book Cephalopod Behavior (you have, haven’t you?), you’d know that they are technically tentacles. Arms are those two extra (longer) appendages that squid and cuttlefish have. Thus, trying to reinforce the “foot” analogy in the “octopodes” pluralization is, essentially, broken in my book. Yes, I know what the family and order names derive from, thank you for asking.
  2. It’s not just the tentacles that are plural, it’s the whole octopus.

I think Matt Jankowski said it best on the Rails list: “I would appreciate VERY MUCH if the person who is building an application that requires an octopuses table could email me off list and let me know more about what it is that they’re doing and why.”

That goes double for me.

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