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A Word, Please: You say 'indices,' she says 'indexes'

August 18, 2011|By June Casagrande

On the day I’m writing this, I’m about 3% wealthier than I was the day before, when I was about 5% wealthier than the day before, at which point I was about 10% poorer than I was the day before that.

I watch the stock market a lot. I’m not sure why. It’s not like I have much money. I suppose those “Real Housewives”-type reality TV shows just aren’t insanely dysfunctional enough to hold my attention. After all, on those, people only pull out each other’s hair.

But the Dow Jones Industrial Average — now that’s drama.

By following the nauseating ups and downs, I’ve learned a few things. I even have a hot stock tip to share: Any company that makes barrels with suspenders attached is a definite “buy.”

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Another thing I’ve learned is that news outlets don’t agree on what the plural of “index” should be. For example, on a recent NBC Nightly News segment, anchor Brian Williams made reference to all three of the major stock indexes. But the next day, an NPR reporter talked about the three major indices.

So who’s right?

In English, the standard way to form a plural is by either adding S or, if the singular word ends in S or a similar sound, like X, by adding ES. Of course, English has a number of words that form their plural according to the rules of some other language. For example, the plural of phenomenon is usually phenomena and not phenomenons.

English even has a lot of foreign-language-based plurals that actually are more familiar to us than their singular forms. Paparazzi, criteria, data, panini and bacteria have singular forms we seldom use: paparazzo, criterion, datum, panino and bacterium.

But “index” is unusual in that people regularly form its plural two different ways. Seems almost as many people use “indexes” as “indices.” So which is right? And, more important: How, when it’s crucial you get it right, can you be sure?

The key to forming plurals perfectly every time is a lot closer at hand than you may know. It’s right in the dictionary.

Many people don’t realize that dictionaries are comprehensive sources for plural formation because a lot of dictionary entries don’t contain plural forms. For example, if you look up “cat” in most dictionaries, you see no indication that the plural is “cats.” But that’s because it’s a regular noun.

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