Parents have been proud of kids for getting through school since ancient times, and that means the words for people who graduate come from Latin. After all, graduation is a momentous occasion: the students stand, faces shining, in their long gowns and funny-shaped hats. “Pomp and Circumstance” plays. The accomplished scholars walk across the stage, and as they accept their diplomas, words like “pupils” and “learners” fade into memory.
That’s where all those big Latin terms come in. But how do you use alumni correctly? And what about the related words alumna, alumnus, and alumnae? And come to think of it, what the heck is an alum?
Alumnus, alumni, alumna, alumnae, alum, and alums
While each of these Latin words refers to people who graduated, the difference between alumnus, alumni, alumna, and alumnae is about plurality and gender.
- alumnus – singular and masculine
- alumni – plural and masculine (or mixed gender)
- alumna – singular and feminine
- alumnae – plural and feminine
- alum – singular and gender-neutral
- alums – plural and gender-neutral
Alumni is the plural noun for a group of male graduates or male and female graduates. An alumnus is one male graduate. An alumna is one female graduate. And for a group of female graduates, you can use the plural alumnae. Finally, alum is for one non-gender specific graduate and alums is a gender-neutral group of graduates.
When to use alumni
Alumni: Graduates or former students of a particular educational institution; former members, employees, contributors, or the like.
Technically, alumni is the masculine plural form of the noun, but it can be used for either a group of mixed gender or a group of men. That’s because Latin grammar has a lot more distinctions based on gender than English grammar does. When Latin had its heyday a few thousand years ago, men were the default category. Today, alumni is used to refer to pretty much any group of people who have graduated from somewhere.
Here’s alumni in a sentence:
“It is as true today as it was in Chaucer’s time that there is a class of men who ‘gladly learn and gladly teach,’ and our college trustees and overseers and rich alumni take advantage of this and expect them to live on wages which an expert chauffeur would regard as insufficient.”
―A. Edward Newton, A Magnificent Farce And Other Diversions Of A Book Collector
When to use alumna, alumnus, and alumnae
Alumna is the feminine singular form of the noun. If you’ve got one female graduate, former member, or no-longer employee, this is your word.
An example of alumna:
“Sophie grinned. If he thought she was a member of the ton, an alumna of dozens of balls and parties, then she must be playing her role to perfection.”
―Julia Quinn, An Offer from a Gentleman
Alumnus is the masculine singular form. Unlike alumni, which can refer to a group of male graduates or to a mixed-gender group, alumnus is usually reserved for the boys. At least, if you’re a stickler for using ancient Latin in modern English.
Here’s an example of alumnus in a sentence:
“If ever there was a shining alumnus from the school of hard knocks, it is I.”
―Chris Kreski, Life Lessons from Xena Warrior Princess: A Guide to Happiness, Success, and Body Armor
Alumnae is the feminine plural form, used for groups of women.
Maybe you’re at an all-girls school, or maybe the boys in the class all dropped out. If you have to refer to a group of girls or women who have moved on from studenthood, this is the word for you.
An example using alumnae:
“The stone seal is indelible, consecrated by the generations of alumnae who have passed by, understanding and believing. No outsider, no matter how cunning, can ever steal that belief away.”
―James Klise, The Art of Secrets
When to use alum or alums
Of course, all those forms are difficult to remember. That’s why alum eventually popped up as a shortened unisex form. At first, alum was frowned upon as extremely informal, but now it’s accepted as a replacement for all of the longer and more gender-specific Latin words. Why? Because two syllables are easier than three, and unspecified gender is easier than using a language that isn’t spoken anymore—which is probably in part because it insisted on far too many distinctions between singular and plural, male and female. So, more and more, folks see it as an acceptable gender-neutral option.
The plural form of alum? That’s right: alums. If you form an English word by chopping off its Latin endings, it’s only fair to add an s as the English signal for plural. Still, even as alum becomes more frequent as a singular form of the word, alumni remains the most commonly used plural form of the noun—no matter whom you’re referring to.
An example of alum:
“Minnesota’s governor may be funny, but he’s no Saturday Night Live alum.”
—The Los Angeles Times
But watch out: alum is also used as a shortcut for referencing aluminum. Don’t get your college graduates mixed up with your chemical elements.
Remember, it’s—alumnus for a male, alumna for a female, alumni for a group of males or mixed gender, and alumnae for a group of females. Or simplify the process by opting with the gender-neutral term alum.