Every English professor, professional writer, or, let’s face it, speaker of English has at least one pet peeve when it comes to how people use the language. For some it’s “nuclear” pronounced “nuke-u-ler.” For others it’s “I could care less” when what you really mean is “I couldn’t care less.”
For me, it’s someone referring to himself or herself as “an alumni.” A Google search for “he is an alumni” gets nearly three million hits, “she is an alumni” almost a million more. But I maintain they’re all wrong. Why? Because alumni is plural. You, an individual, can’t be alumni any more than you can be a students.
So what are you? If you are a man, you are an alumnus. If you are a woman you are an alumna.
Many graduates, as long as some are men, are alumni. A group of female graduates are alumnae.
It’s no mystery why this pattern of usage has fallen out of favour. Part of it is that we are less familiar with Latin endings these days and so the division between the masculine and feminine forms of the words seems less natural to us than it would have a couple of generations ago.
Moreover, we have been moving away from gender-specific words generally. A female who writes poetry is now simply a poet, not a poetess, though a woman who acts is often still called an actress.
Finally, since we often speak of the graduates of an institution collectively, alumni is the form that people hear most, and that’s the one they’ve often adopted.
A Google books Ngram of the variations of the word shows all of them declining in popularity, apparently in favour of the even more generic “graduate.” Alumna, interestingly, enjoys a brief surge in the mid-twentieth century, and then drops off, presumably reflecting the way in which female graduates became a new trend (“look at all the alumnae!”) and then a commonplace.
No doubt, readers will object that English is a living language, constantly changing, so what’s wrong with using alumni as both a singular and a plural? It works for fish, doesn’t it?
And of course, in the larger sense, they’re right. A language is determined by its actual usage, not by the preferences of aggrieved professors. And the world will go on just fine with individuals saying “I’m an alumni.” But I still feel that something is lost every time we simplify the language just because we can’t be bothered to remember the complexities.
Indeed, one of the joys of knowing a language is learning its intricacies, its little oddities, its weird old-fashioned features and quirky inconsistencies. Even writing that humble little word three times in the previous sentence (its), correctly, without an apostrophe, is a tiny satisfaction.
In short, if language really is determined by its speakers, it doesn’t follow that our usage has to be a matter of mindless, inexorable trends. If you like the distinguished sound of “alumnus” and “alumna,” use those words. You get a vote, too. And so do I.
And I’m not an alumni.
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.