Burchfield's Fowler

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Sun Aug 9 17:35:34 UTC 2009

This anecdote is prompted by the following part of AZ's comment and link:

it became part of the peevelore, to the extent that you felt
> that MWDEU had to warn readers that some people view the usage as a
> straightforward error, so that you might want to be cautious about
> using it.  (Crazies win, as i said in a Language Log posting a while
> back:
>    AZ, 5/13/08: Crazies win:
>   http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=123  )

I worked as a reference librarian at a university library.  One day I took a phonecall from a woman asking whether her status as an "alumni" of the university gave her a right to enter the library.  Speaking in my own natural dialect, and not intending to correct her, I said, "As an alumna of the university...."  She burst out, "Oh, is that the correct way of saying it, I'm never sure".  I said, when we are speaking Latin, we should speak it correctly, and in Latin "alumna" is correct, but in as much as we were speaking in English, and most college graduates speak of themselves as "alumni", then despite my own eccentricity, "alumni" is correct.  As I recall, this turned into a bit of a chat, because I think I told her that one of the other librarians, if a patron identified him/herself as an "alumni", would, after the person left the desk, snort at the blunder.  She has to be concerned that perhaps she'll encounter someone who will write her off as ignorant for saying "alumn
i", but when I call myself an "alumnus", I risk being tagged a pretentious snob -- and since in this case I'm the one whose out of step, I'm probably more at risk --if I cared.

K. M. R. I. A., (says Myles Crawford, in Ulysses.  This is the English major breaking out in me again.)


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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