JUST like fungus and fungi, the words alumnus and alumni have the same relationship. The former is singular; the latter, plural. But where does alumnae sit in the equation? Well, it’s the plural of alumna, the feminine of alumnus. Gee, doesn’t that remind you of vertebra (singular) versus vertebrae (plural)? Or pupa/pupae and larva/larvae?
But that’s just the realm of singular versus plural, alumnus and alumna takes us into masculine-feminine territory. Oh, the joys of Latin and Latinate languages! Do we, however, need to be a stickler, with the gender difference between alumni and alumnae? Here’s what Oxford has to say:
In the singular, alumnus nearly always means a male, but the plural alumni usually refers to graduates or former students of either sex.
But when my alma mater is an all-girls’ school, I think alumnae is fitting. The word suits all 163 of us—us, alumnae and not alumni—who got together for a class reunion recently. A thirty-year absence may not have made the heart grow fonder, but it sure made us one big brood of chatter girls and banter birds.
In summary, presenting the ladies first, our Latin words for graduate:
(n) (pl. alumnae || )
a female graduate or former student of a particular school, college, or university
(n) (pl. alumni || )
a graduate or former student, especially male, of a particular school, college, or university
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“Language Bites” are reflections on the joys and angst of language usage, from sentence structure to syntax, voice and vocabulary, some why’s and how’s, plus do’s and don’t’s.