Dear Mr. Lederer: I have observed that many license plate holders state, “___ University Alumni.” I assume the driver is proudly announcing that he or she graduated from that particular school. My Unabridged Webster’s Dictionary indicates that alumni is the plural version of a boy or man who attended or graduated from a school, college or university. The masculine singular version is alumnus. On the female side, the singular is alumna, and the plural is alumnae. It appears to me that license plate holders sold by colleges to their ever-proud graduates should offer one version for female graduates and one version for male graduates. The word alumni should not be employed at all on license plates, at least under most circumstances. Any thoughts on this issue? — Michael Sampson, Kensington
Many thanks for your bull’s-eye analysis of this eyesore on our freeways, streets and roads. Most authorities identify alumni as a plural noun referring to male graduates or males and females collectively, but the most common mistake is not one of gender but one of number, as in “I am an alumni of ___ University.”
Whenever I spot one of those “___ University Alumni” signs affixed to a car not traveling in an HOV lane, I look to see if there’s a single driver inside. If so, the message can’t be accurate. As you point out, the solution is to issue two versions of the license plate holder: “___ Alumnus” for men and “___ Alumna” for women.
To summarize — alumnus (pronounced a-LUM-nuh): a male graduate; alumna (a-LUM-nuh): a female graduate; alumni (a-LUM-nigh): male graduates or male and female graduates; alumnae (a-LUM-nee): female graduates. The pronunciations I’ve just provided are correct in modern English, even if they’ve strayed a bit from the way Julius Caesar probably sounded these words.
Dear Mr. Lederer: Thanks for sharing your grammatical knowledge with us in the Saturday U-T, and thanks for inviting our questions. Mine is this: Do I ask you to try and help me, or do I ask you to try to help me? I think it should be try to, but mostly I hear try and. Try and sleep, try and stay awake, try and get this email done, etc. I will try to be patient while awaiting your response. — Lindsay Skinner, San Diego
The use of try and for try to has become an established idiom in everyday speech and, increasingly, in writing. This substitution of the conjunction and for the to that is part of an infinitive verb happens almost exclusively with the verb try.
But, in this context, and doesn’t actually join two actions. If I say or (gasp!) write “I’ll try and help you,” I don’t mean to describe two separate occurrences: “First, I’ll try, and then I’ll help you.” Rather, the and in this construction supplants the more logical to, which is supposed to kick off an infinitive phrase that acts as a noun and tells what will be tried. I recommended that you try to stick with the infinitive construction.
Dear Mr. Lederer: It has been driving me nuts to hear people say the word height with a th sound at the end, and it seems to be contagious!!! Isn’t it correctly pronounced with a hard t sound? I have been hearing this for a long time now and was so happy to see your column in the paper so I could vent my frustrations. Is it just me? — Antoinette Hamilton, San Diego
No, it’s not just you, Antoinette. Height is indeed properly pronounced with a hard t. The atrocity that is heighth is the spawn of the model long-length, broad-breadth, deep-depth and wide-width. But high-height doesn’t fall into that pattern. Be very afraid of heighth; height will suit you to a t.
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