Alumnus, alumna, alumni, and alumnus are all from Latin. They're hard enough to remember, but then you also have to contend with alums versus alumni for mixed groups of graduates.
You’ll remember that a couple of weeks ago, I had a piece from Neal Whitman about homecoming being called HoCo, and Neal was also kind enough to point out that although I wrote about the words alum and alumni in some of my Grammar Girl books, I’ve never covered them on the podcast or on the website, and this would be a good time of year to do so… because alumni go to homecoming. Or should that be alums go to homecoming?
First, let’s deal with the singular forms.
‘Alumnus’ and ‘Alumna’
As you may have guessed, these words to describe graduates come straight from Latin.
A lone female graduate is called an alumna. So I am an alumna of the University of Washington in Seattle and an alumna of Stanford University. A lone male graduate is called an alumnus.
Alumnus means "foster son," "pupil," or "to nourish" in Latin. The Latin term for a former school is alma mater, meaning "nourishing mother"; therefore, an alumnus can be seen as the foster son (pupil) of the nourishing mother (the school). Nice, huh?
Now let’s get to the plurals.
‘Alumni’ and ‘Alumnae’
A group of male graduates are alumni and a group of female graduates are formally called alumnae.
‘Alum’ or ‘Alumni’?
If, and this is where some people have a problem, the returning graduates in the homecoming stands are a mix of male and female graduates, it’s generally agreed that the right thing is to call them alumni even though that’s also the word for a group of just male graduates.
The Associated Press, for example, recommends using the word alumni for mixed groups. For example, you could write
More alumni than ever returned to campus this year for homecoming.Some people don’t like that though, or they just get confused about which word to use, so they use the clipped form instead and refer to mixed groups as alums. writing things like
More alums than ever returned to campus this year for homecoming.
Alums is so popular that Garner’s Modern English Usage calls it a fully accepted slangy casualism. In other words, you may not like it, but it’s here to stay, and you’re more likely to see it in a Facebook post from your sorority than in the New York Times.
That’s your quick and dirty tip: You call a group of male graduates alumni, but you also call a group of male and female graduates alumni. If you can’t remember that or have a problem with it, you can use the word alums for mixed groups, but some people will think it’s an error or that it’s too casual.
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