Romance is in the Air? Romance is in English!
The Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, to name a few) are so called because they have so much Roman (read: Latin) influence. English, too, has benefited much from Latin even though it is not a Romance language. English writers even use stock Latin phrases—albeit sometimes incorrectly (it is a dead language, after all!). Take this as your field guide to putting a little Romance in your writing, starting with how to use Latin morphemes, followed by a user’s guide to Latin-derived terms and Latin quotations. We’ll start with the smallest bits: the plurals.
Latin Plurals and Morphemes
English contains a lot of borrowings from Latin, especially in the domains of science and technology. Words like data have been transplanted from ancient tablets and manuscripts into our everyday speech. However, this means that you cannot simply add -s to many of these words in order to pluralize them. Latin, unlike English, has several regular plural forms that depend on the ending of the base words in question. Latin nouns ending in -a, -us, -ix, -um, and -is change in the plural to -ae, -i, -ices, -a, and -es, respectively. But be careful! The plural of data is not datae; data is actually the plural of datum (for more, you can read our article Conflicting Data).
These wacky plurals are not the only bits of words Latin has so lovingly donated to us. In fact, Latin morphemes, which are parts of words with little bits of meaning attached to them, are still used in many words. You may be familiar with the aqu- in aquarium and aquifer, for example, or the circ- in circle and circular. These days, Latin morphemes are mostly used to coin new scientific terms.
Commonly Misused Terms
English readers encounter Latin abbreviations and expressions quite often, especially in academic, legal, religious and scientific writing. Here are a few of the most common ones, along with some warnings about common mistakes. The first one we have to warn you about is italics: be aware that though these little expressions are italicized here for clarity, italics are not ordinarily used for these expressions except for [sic].
In Latin, this word means “let him beware,” but the English meaning is closer to “a warning”. Unfortunately, this word is often mistakenly thought to mean “a supporting detail”. In fact, the meaning is quite the opposite. So, a statement like “His argument is strong because of its many caveats” is illogical. Instead, a correct usage might be: “This is a fantastic hotel, with one caveat”.
Contrary to popular belief, this common expression does not mean example given. It is instead a Latin initialism for exempli gratia, but it does mean for example or for instance!
For both e.g. and the similar expression i.e. (see below), style guides diverge on whether or not they should be followed by a comma. However, it is useful to note that commas following these initialism are more common in the United States.
Commonly seen in bibliographical information, et al. is used to indicate that there are more authors of a text than those mentioned. It is an abbreviation for the Latin et alia (“among others”). Therefore, you should never punctuate the expression as et. al.; it should always be et al.
Interestingly, et al. does not always stand for just et alia. Et alia is the neuter form of the Latin expression, but there are also masculine and feminine versions, for cases where you want to describe a group of men or of women: et alii and et aliae, respectively.
ibid. or ib.
This is an abbreviation for the Latin word ibidem, which means “in the same place”. It is often used in academic writing to indicate that a fact, quotation or opinion is from the same source as the previous citation. It should be used with a page number if your second citation comes from a different page than the first.
This is not an equivalent of for example as many people think. Instead, this common initialism stands for id est (“it is”), which means that is to say. Be sure to avoid confusing it with e.g. (“for example”).
A correct usage might be:
The mayor was found guilty of corruption, i.e. taking bribes.
First of all, the correct spelling is per se and not per say, as many believe (although the two expressions are homophones). Per se is Latin for “through itself,” but a better English translation might be “in and of itself.” To ensure that you’re using the phrase correctly, try replacing it with the English translation. For example a correct usage might be:
Though the work in itself is not strenuous per se, the schedule can still wear on you.
Often used in quotations, sic is Latin for so, thus or such. Normally, it is used to mark a grammatical or spelling error in a quoted text, so that the author of the text can show that the error is not their own. However, [sic] should not be used to denote a factual mistake, even though journalists will often use square brackets for this purpose. Uses like “The Earth is flat [sic]” are incorrect. [Sic] is also optionally italicized, so choose the style that looks the best to you.
There is some disagreement about whether [sic] should be used at all. It can seem unnecessarily impolite to point out another’s mistake, especially in more informal contexts where there is less emphasis on perfection. Writers should use their judgement.
Be careful not to confuse this expression with the common “attack” command for dogs, sic, which has nothing to do with Latin—although someone might sic their dog on you if you use too many [sic]s.
stet and stat
While these two terms only vary by one letter, they mean very different things and are used in totally separate contexts! Stet is Latin for “let it stand,” and is used in proofreading to reject an edit, or to indicate that a correction should be ignored. Stat is short for statim, which is Latin for immediately. It’s more commonly used in emergency medical situations.
Quoting and Citing Latin
In addition to providing us with useful initialisms and morphemes, Latin has served as a language of thought and learning for thousands of years, in everything from poems to laws to plays. Many institutions even have Latin mottos, because quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur (“whatever is said in Latin seems profound”). But if you want to tell your Valentine that amor vincit omnia (“love conquers all”), then perhaps you’d like to impress them further by sharing that the quote is from the tenth poem of Virgil’s Ecologues, plus the correct line number.
Read on to figure out how to properly cite Classical Latin works and really wow your date. Citing classical works comes in a variety of styles, but one of the most common ways is called the Chicago Style, which is the focus below.
The way you present the titles of Latin works depends on when the work was written (Latin being the “language of learning” means that its uses and connotations have varied over the years). If your text was written before the Renaissance, it should be capitalized in sentence style: only capitalize the first letter of the work and any proper nouns. If your text was written during or after the Renaissance, it should be in title case: all the important words should have a capital letter, Kind of Like This. If you’re in doubt, opt for sentence style.
If you’re citing a primary source (maybe you have the original Latin), you should cite it in-text or in the notes. Only include your source in the bibliography if you need to cite the thoughts of a modern editor or commentator; this includes translations or edited collections. If you need to cite a specific edition of a text, a superscript should be used.
Along with the name of the author, you should also include the numbers that tell your reader the part of the text your material is found in. This can be a bit tricky, since most classical texts are subdivided into sections without much standardization. However, the numbers generally go from large to small: book, chapter, section, line, etc. (and are sometimes given in Roman numerals). These numbers are useful because they are usually the same from text to text, as long as you’re working from the original. Next, punctuate your reference by placing a comma between the name of the author and the title of the text. No punctuation needs to go between the title of the work and the accompanying numbers. So, for our Virgil example, the correct citation would be:
“amor vincit omnia” (Virgil, Ecologues 10.69)
“amor vincit omnia” (Virgil, Ecologues X.69)
If you need to re-cite a classical source, you should abbreviate the author’s name instead of using ibid. I know, I know.
Because Latin texts are often very old, they are not always complete. For example, collections of inscriptions and text fragments are a common type of Latin text. The titles of specific collections of inscriptions should always be mentioned in italics, with numerals used in the same way as in other classical references.
Fragments of classical texts are not uniformly numbered. They are often published in collections, and the numbering is typically unique to particular editions. Two numbers separated by a period usually indicate a particular fragment and line. The editor’s name (often abbreviated thereafter) follows these numbers. These types of citations should also be included in-text.
Classicist or not, we hope this article makes you a little more confident in using the language of the Roman past. Though Latin is already sprinkled throughout English, few really know how to employ the language correctly. But now you do!
Find a detailed description of the rules and conventions of the English language in Antidote’s language guides.