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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Elegant English: Double trouble

In last year’s FIFA World Cup coverage, when referring to more than one stadium, the press consistently used the plural form ‘stadia’ instead of ‘stadiums’, which is also deemed acceptable. This is quite common for a number of loan words, especially Latin-derived ones, with a few examples of ones we encounter in actuarial work shown in Table 1 below. It is down to personal preference as to which option to use.

Note, however, that it is not always possible to alter the loan word’s plural form; for example, ‘alumnus’ (masculine singular) and ‘alumna’ (feminine singular) take their Latin plurals ‘alumni’ and ‘alumnae’ respectively.

The plurals of certain words of Greek origin are sometimes erroneously used as singulars; for instance, it is not uncommon to hear things like “the main criteria is...” instead of “the main criterion is...” or “the main criteria are...”; and similarly “this unusual phenomena was...” instead of “this unusual phenomenon was...” or “these unusual phenomena were...”

Note that the word ‘media’, when used to refer to communications such as newspapers and television, is often treated as a singular mass noun. Similarly, the word ‘agenda’ is now used as a singular, although it was the plural of the archaic ‘agendum’. ‘Data’ is now increasingly treated as singular although it is the plural of ‘datum’, now commonly referred to as ‘data point’.

Certain words ending in ‘-is’ in the singular form sometimes get incorrectly used unaltered as plurals; for example, ‘axis’, ‘analysis’, ‘crisis’ and ‘hypothesis’. These words retain their original plurals: ‘axes’, ‘analyses’, ‘crises’ and ‘hypotheses’ respectively. Thus, if another market depression were to occur, the reference to both could be ‘economic crises’ or perhaps even ‘credit crunches’. Note that ‘series’ remains unchanged from the singular to the plural form.

In British English, there are a number of cases where the plural verb form is discretionary, depending on the context. This is notable in sport, for example, “Spain are the 2010 World Cup winners” rather than “Spain is the 2010 World Cup winner”, denoting the idea of a number of people working together who jointly have won the tournament. “The Board are agreed...” may be preferred to “The Board is agreed...” as the concept is that of the individual members of the Board coming to an agreement. However, you may prefer to say “The Board meets here every month” as the idea is that of the Board being one group. A few examples of words that function thus are: ‘company’, ‘firm’, ‘management’, ‘staff’ and ‘team’, which may refer to either a single entity or members that comprise it.

Apostrophes are sometimes used to form plurals of proper nouns and dates, although usually unnecessary here and best used where essential (as will be covered in a future article on apostrophes). Instead of “The two John’s are pricing actuaries”, it is correct to write “...two Johns...” British English prefers “the 1990s” to the American version of “1990’s.” Pluralising acronyms need not be accompanied by apostrophes, for instance, TASs not TAS’s. However, you may prefer to mind your p’s and q’s rather than your ps and qs as the former are easier to read.

One interesting preference for the inaccurate over the accurate occurs with the word ‘die’. Actuaries come across this word with regards to two of its meanings: the cubed piece – frequently employed in board games – used to illustrate the uniform distribution; and that which concerns death. For the former, the singular is ‘die’ and the plural ‘dice’; nevertheless, many people prefer to use ‘dice’ as singular, finding ‘die’ to be a ‘morbid’ word, as an actuary once explained. This is a particularly striking statement from someone who deals with mortality and morbidity, regularly minding his px’s and qx’s.

Do exercise caution when there is the possibility of more than one meaning, distinguished by the plural form. Contrast these sentences: “We referred to a variety of media to determine the best estimate of reserves” and “We referred to a variety of mediums to determine the best estimate of reserves.” These two sentences contain distinct ideas: in the first sentence, the plural of ‘medium’ as ‘media’ denotes modes/ methods/channels; in the second sentence the plural of ‘medium’ as ‘mediums’ conjures up the image of psychics/mystics/mind readers. The discussion of whether actuarial reserving bears resemblance to clairvoyant exercises is outside the scope of this article.

Sonal Shah is a general insurance actuary working in the Prudential Insurance Risk Department at the Financial Services Authority. The views expressed herein are the author’s own and not necessarily those of her employer. Please note that this column is not intended to be prescriptive; its purpose is to provide suggestions to help make communication clearer.

Sonal’s other columns in the Elegant English series can be found here:
Mind your language (hyphens)
>> Apostrophe risk (apostrophes)