Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Syllabi or Syllabuses?

It's that season again! You know, when we dust off that syllabus and take a look at it to see if it's needs any tweaking. That, or just change the date and call it done. We may even have a few syllabuses to tend. Wait! What?! Syllabuses? Shouldn't that be syllabi?


Well, it's true that I often get things wrong. But not this time.

Actually, I didn't know until recently that in English, the correct plural form of syllabus is syllabuses

And syllabi. Either one is correct. 

I don't know if I've ever heard anyone actually say syllabuses, except me. And I've only recently started using it because I've been thinking about it. Soon, I'll be calling them Course Guides because that just now popped into my head—so I'll be thinking of that instead. And, as much as I like the classics (Latin and Greek), I think Course Guide works better and is more student friendly because it's plainly spoken. But I digress.

Maybe before reading this, you hadn't heard syllabuses used much, either.

It turns out that the English word syllabus was coined way back in 1650 from a modern Latin word that was itself formed sort of by mistake, by several misreadings and misinterpretations of some similar sounding Greek words. One of those Greek words is a form—síttybās—that refers to papyrus rolls.

scroll in a glass library case

I'm thinking my course syllabuses are getting so long, especially with recent mandatory disclaimers and public health instructions sent down to me from the ivory-tower folks, they maybe would be best printed out on papyrus scrolls.

Once the word syllabus appeared in Latin, it then took on a Latin plural form syllabi. But remember we're speaking English, not Latin. It's true that in academia in general, and the life sciences in particular, we like to use the Latin plural forms. But when it comes right down to it, we're still speaking English, right? So it's syllabi if you want to preserve the Latin flavor—and who doesn't? But it's also perfectly fine to use syllabuses as the plural form. Both are okay. Really.

I'll probably go back to using syllabi—if I end up abandoning my idea of using Course Guide. But I'm going to keep syllabuses in my pocket to use if I ever need to create a distraction (or keep myself awake) at an academic committee meeting.

Want some tips for taming your syllabuses, er, course guides? Check out The Syllabus Special episode of The A&P Professor podcast.

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash