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Author Bitten By Multiple Octopuses

We welcome Ben H. Winters, who follows up the runaway success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with his own Jane Austen mashup, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. As the publisher, Quirk Books, explains, "Winters expands the original text of Austen's beloved novel with all-new scenes of giant lobsters, rampaging octopi, two-headed sea serpents, swashbuckling pirates, and other seaworthy creatures." Hmm... octopi?

After writing a 340-page novel swarming with violent undersea predators, I thought I knew my way around the word octopus. There are not one, but two chapters in Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters that feature octopus attacks. The first time, it is just one octopus that sets upon Marianne Dashwood, before it is dispatched by Mr. Willoughby's harpoon gun. But in the second incident, dozens of the terrifying creatures swarm en masse, requiring me to use the plural form of octopus — which, as everyone knows, is octopi.

So confident was I that octopi is correct, that I used the word frequently in promotional interviews, while trying to give a flavor of my preposterous book: "It's got all the stuff that Jane Austen meant to include, but never got around to: vengeful pirates, mutant lobsters, giant octopi..."

I even felt embarrassed when, during a radio appearance, I slipped and used the wrong form — octopuses — instead. I was duly corrected by the host of the program, who, as it happened, was Dee Snider, of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister and now Fangoria Radio on Sirius Satellite. Chastened, I assured Mr. Snider and his listeners that I pluralized octopus properly in the actual book.

I managed to conclude the interview, while kicking myself internally. How could I have made such a elementary usage error? In front of the guy who wrote "We're Not Gonna Take It"?

You can imagine my shock on November 6, when I opened my "Usage Tip of the Day" from Bryan Garner, author of the esteemed Garner's Modern American Usage. That day's tip was on the word octopus, and it said that "the standard plural in American and British English alike is 'octopuses.'" Garner even marked octopi with the dreaded asterisk, meaning "invariably inferior form."

I fell out of my chair. Octopi was an invariably inferior form? I could not have been more surprised if my inbox had contained an actual octopus. 

It turns out that, though there are several English words that properly take an "i" plural (alumnus becomes alumni,  radius becomes radii) those words are derived from Latin originals. My friend octopus, however, comes to us not from Latin, but from Greek. So Dee Snider and I were both wrong, and octopuses is entirely correct.

Even worse, there is a fancy-pants plural form of octopus that I could have used, but it's not octopi — it's octopodes, ripped directly from the Greek, and Garner says it's pedantic anyhow.

I emailed my editor, Jason Rekulak at Quirk Books, to make him aware of this mortifying error. Probably the best thing to do under the circumstances, I figured, was pulp all existing copies of the book, correct the mistake, and start the print run from scratch. Yes, this would incur some expense, but surely no price is too high to fix an incorrectly deployed Latinate plural!

Jason, like most book editors, is a pretty level-headed guy. (After reading my first draft, he sensibly suggested that while readers would accept the presence of pirates in my version of Regency England, Vikings would be a bridge too far.)  He noted that if I had used octopuses correctly, legions of smarty-pants readers would have written to alert us of our "mistake."

He's probably right, but these hypothetical know-it-alls would be making exactly the same blunder I did, by using octopi in the first place: using a form because it sounds highfaluting, when the plain-speaking  version is actually more accurate. It's what the usage set calls hypercorrection, and we are all guilty of it now and then: incorrectly substituting whom for who, or I for me, out of fear that using the more commonplace word will make us sound foolish.

As for the giant octopi swimming through Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, both literal and etymological monsters, I can only offer up a bit of Latin, properly used this time: mea culpa.

And I swear to God, if I ever write a novel with a hippopotamus in it, there will only be one of them.

Ben H. Winters is a novelist, playwright and journalist who lives in Brooklyn, New York; he is the co-author with Jane Austen of the New York Times bestseller Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. The proper plural of his last name is Winterses. You can find out more about him at www.BenHWinters.com

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Comments from our users:

Friday November 13th 2009, 3:45 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I first read this opinion about the plural of octopus decades ago, and I didn't agree then; I don't agree now.

People don't use "octopi" because "it sounds highfaluting," we use it because it sound right. "Octopuses" sounds incorrect.

Grammatical forms are only correct when they sound right to most people. They are wrong when they make readers stop and question usage. Right grammar never calls attention to itself. "Octopuses" fails that test.

By the way, the long-ago article said that "octopodes" was actually the preferred form. I speak for the great majority, I believe, in saying that I actually despise the word "octopodes."
Saturday November 14th 2009, 1:20 AM
Comment by: Heather K. (Winder, GA)
The reason the most correct pluralization is "octopodes" is because it is a Greek word. It eventually became Anglicized to "octopuses". More recently people began using the incorrect Latin "-pi" in place of the Greek "-podes" ending.

In American English today, "octopuses" is still the preferred pluralization, but "octopi" is accepted because it is in wide use.

Right grammar always starts off as wrong grammar - until enough people use it wrong for it to become accepted, then eventually preferred.
Sunday November 15th 2009, 9:36 AM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
That's all great, but what's the collective noun?
Sunday November 15th 2009, 7:15 PM
Comment by: Robert M. (New York, NY)
Ben Winters also teaches writing to students at the school I teach at, P.S. 334 Manhattan (The Anderson School). He is awesome.

In a "Peanuts" comic strip Linus said, "One igloo, two igli."
Friday November 20th 2009, 4:56 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Ben, your article is a delight to read. I'm going to watch (or actively search!) for more of your writing.

I was told once, long ago, by a very bright and well-read friend, that the correct pronunciation of "err" is "urr" not "air", as we usually hear it. So for years I steadfastly andsmugly used the "urr" pronunciation, feeling smarter than the people who gave me the funny looks. Finally someone told me they were sure I was saying it wrong; I checked a couple of dictionaries, and they confirmed that the preferred pronunciation is "air" (that's my phoenetic spelling, not the dictionaries'). But "air" sounds wrong to me now, so I simply don't use the phrase "To err is human" altogether, to avoid proving the phrase to be true (and myself to be human) no matter how I pronounce the word!

By the way, I just checked the dictionary and "hifalutin", which you used near the end of your article, isn't spelled with a "g" on the end, or even with a hyphen indicating that a "g" has been dropped! Maybe "highfaluting" is another example of over correction - using a hifalutin word instead of a commonplace one!

I love playing with words, don't you? Life is so sweet: Free toys, everywhere, all the time! Yay!
Saturday November 21st 2009, 3:40 PM
Comment by: Rain
Octopuses sounds like a distinctly feline creature of the sea.
Sunday November 22nd 2009, 9:58 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for you witty, amusing post, Kristine.
Monday November 23rd 2009, 11:14 AM
Comment by: Frank C. (Issaquah, WA)
I always thought Octopi was used when it referred to more than one of the same species, and octopuses was used when referring to more than one species of octopodes...huh? oh well, I gotta go look it up now.
Friday December 9th 2011, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
"Highfaluting"! psht--NOW who's putting on airs?

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