A Word, Please: Language finds its own way down the plural road

Toyota has been conducting a poll to determine the plural of “Prius.” Will it be Priuses? Will it be the Latin-inspired Prii? Should Prius be like deer, using its singular as its plural? Or how about Prien or Prium?

The poll results are scheduled to be announced today, and early results suggest Prii could be the winner. Apparently, the people who would answer a poll like this are people likely to buy in to the idea that Prius’s Latin roots mean it should follow Latin plural-formation guidelines. (Apparently they don’t care that the Latin formula that would lead us to Prii is really a formula for making plurals out of nouns and not words that, like Prius, are really adverbs.)

Toyota would have us all waiting with bated breath to see the final outcome of this thrilling contest. But anyone familiar with basic linguistics can already predict the outcome: No one will do what Toyota says. People will do what they’ve always done, form their own plurals organically.

Plurals evolve naturally. They can’t be dictated by a company, not even a company that coined the term for the singular.

When people try to force language issues, they always fail. Take, for example, the well-intentioned quest to find a gender-neutral alternative to “he or she” in instances like “The driver must remember that he or she is not the only person on the road.” Well-intentioned people have been putting forward one-word alternatives to “he or she” since the 1850s, with suggestions ranging from “nis “ to “iro” to “ons” to “hu.” They’ve all failed because we the people continue to ordain “they” as a gender-neutral singular alternative to “he or she.”

The people who control the printing presses have always had huge influence. They have their own rules. By examining them, we can see where this issue is going.

Most English plurals are formed by adding S. One pen; two pens. Words that end in S, CH, SH or X, you just add ES. One kiss; two kisses. One hatch; two hatches. The rest are all oddballs and irregulars: child/children, berry/berries, knife/knives, man/men.

For the regular nouns, the dictionary expects you to apply the basic formula: add S or ES. But for these oddballs, the dictionary gives the plural form right next to the singular form. Look up “goose” and you’ll see the plural is “geese.”

So we can divide all common nouns into one of two categories: ones that form their plurals with the simple “add S or add ES” formula, and the others, which the dictionary addresses on a case-by-case basis. That’s for generic nouns. Obviously, there’s no dictionary containing every conceivable trade name.

That’s why “Words Into Type,” an influential guide in the publishing world, tells editors: “The plural of proper names is formed regularly, by adding S or ES to the singular. Proper names ending in Y form their plurals regularly, and do not change the Y to I as common nouns do.”

So one Camry; two Camrys. One Nissan Leaf; two Leafs. One Prius; two Priuses.

Sure, if proper plurals got the same treatment as generic plurals, we could just follow the dictionary and make Nissan Leaf into Nissan Leaves. But the publishing industry’s simple formula for proper names covers us even if Nissan rolls out a model called the Pleaf. That is, because pleaf doesn’t exist in the dictionary as a generic noun, the publishing industry standard of painting all trade names with the same brush saves us from having Nissan Leaves and Pleafs in the same sentence.

That’s why, regardless of the poll, the winner will be Priuses.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com

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