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Beware! The Ides of March Is (or Are?) Coming

The word “Ides,” as in “Ides of March,” denotes a single and singular day. But is the word itself singular or plural?

By
Steven Saylor

The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini

The word “Ides,” as in “Ides of March,” denotes a single and singular day. But is the word itself singular or plural?

Far from being an ”idle” query, this question posed a real-world publishing conundrum for me recently. I write novels about ancient Rome. The latest, “The Throne of Caesar” (in bookstores on the Ides of March, incidentally), is a thriller centered on the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. Even readers with only a passing interest in the ancient world know the date of that event, the most famous murder in history: the Ides of March, which falls—or fall?—on the 15th of that month.

“Beware the Ides of March,” says the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” The Roman dictator dismisses the warning as the muttering of a mere dreamer. On the day itself, as Caesar approaches his fateful meeting with the Roman Senate, the soothsayer reappears. Says Caesar to the soothsayer, wryly, “The Ides of March are come.” To which the soothsayer replies, fretfully, “Ay, Caesar; but not gone.”

Wait a minute—“The Ides of March are come”? Not is? Is “Ides” a plural noun? And if so, the plural of what? A single “Ide”?

throne of caesar book cover

Straightening out that verbal wrinkle mattered acutely to me some months ago when I was asked to give final approval to the book jacket for “The Throne of Caesar.” Rereading the jacket copy for the umpteenth time, I suddenly noticed that “Ides” occurred in two different places—and was treated as plural in one and singular in the other.

Jacket copy began: “It’s 44 B.C. and the Ides of March approach.” Some paragraphs later, jacket copy ended: “The Ides of March is fast approaching and at least one murder is inevitable.” Until that moment, no one had noticed the discrepancy—and this was the last day to make changes.

It then occurred to me, with a chill, that I might have used “Ides” as both plural and singular in the text of the novel. Uh-oh!

But a quick search revealed that while “Ides” occurred numerous times in the novel, in only three cases was the word accompanied by a verb that had to be either singular or plural, and in all three cases, without thinking about it, I had chosen plural. (“The Ides haven’t yet passed,” says a character.)

At least the novel was consistent—and surely the book jacket should agree with the novel. Thus the first sentence of the jacket copy was left alone while the last was changed to read, “The Ides of March are fast approaching and at least one murder is inevitable.”

In the meantime I had consulted more than one dictionary. Most (without explanation) assert that a verb used with “Ides” can be either singular or plural. Philologist friends informed me that the original Latin word, "Idus," is in all cases plural. Tipping the scale was the fact that Shakespeare used “Ides” as plural, and if “The Ides of March are come” was good enough for Shakespeare, then surely it was good enough for me.

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