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The Plural of Octopus: Octopi or Octopuses?

Updated on
May 16, 2019
Grammar

How do you make octopus plural? The answer is not so simple—and has actually been at the center of debate for longer than you may realize.

Look this question up and you’ll get three options listed: octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Why three? Which one is correct?

Why are there different endings for the plural of octopus?

These different endings are some examples of how English takes plurals from different languages. The word “octopus” is a Latinized form of the Greek word októpus, which translates to “eight foot.” But the word’s etymological history reveals why there’s often confusion around how the pluralized form should be spelled, and what we’re supposed to say when we’re describing multiple cephalopods at once. (Ironically, the octopus is a solitary creature.)

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The meaning of octopi

Let’s start with octopi. Many people don’t like octopi, and you will rarely see it in edited works, but it does occasionally appear. Octopi, which derives from Latin, is the oldest of the three plurals. “The -i ending comes from the belief that words of Latin origin should have Latin endings in English (while octopus may ultimately come from Greek it had a stay in New Latin before arriving here),” says Merriam-Webster.

If you’re thinking, “It has a Latin origin, so why wouldn’t its plural form be in Latin, too?” you’re not alone. But it’s not that simple. “The -us in octopus is not the Latin noun ending that switches to -i in the plural, but the Greek pous (foot),” according to Quartz.com. 

The meaning of octopodes

That brings us to the next ending, octopodes, which follows the Greek formation for plurals. This is the least-used ending, even though it may fit the word’s Greek origins best. “Octopodes stems from the belief that because octopus is originally Greek, it should have a Greek ending,” says Merriam-Webster.

The meaning of octopuses

However, the final option, octopuses, is the preferred plural when speaking and writing in English. Merriam-Webster notes that this plural emerged later in the nineteenth century, and has the attached –es ending to follow the English formation of plurals.

There you have it: The most commonly accepted plural usage for octopus is octopuses

Correct: The clever octopuses snuck out of their tank at night.

Examples of octopuses

This seems extraordinarily unfair: A dull-looking fish lives for centuries while the cuttlefish, in their chromatic splendor, and the octopuses , in their inquisitive intelligence, are dead before they are 2?
The New York Times

Octopuses use tools; they play; they can solve problems and puzzles; and they may even engage in warfare with improvised weapons.
Quartz

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