Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

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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