04 April 2006


Whatever happened to "indices"?

My uncle (among others) asked me, "Is the word indices no good anymore? It seems that indexes has won."

I didn't know those words were contesting, but yes. If a U.S. winner were to be declared today, I'd have to go with indexes.

Although strictly speaking the correct term is indices, I think in common speech a distinction has been made for an item that is rarely plural. For example, when referring to an appendix in the back of a book, often there is more than one: appendices. However, when referring to the (vermiform) appendix in the human body, rarely do you talk about more than one at a time, and thus "appendixes." (And then there's the acronym, APPENDIX, which simply doesn't count.)

With book indexes, there is rarely more than one -- although you can certainly talk about the indexes across the books, as I do. But in database programming and similar constructions, often each line in the database (each record) has its own index. And so you can have thousands of indices. When you're working with indices (as opposed to indexes), you're working with large quantities of small bits of information.

To me, this logic is what's also behind such oddities as the words "persons" and "peoples." These terms, though related, are attempts at showing quantity in environments where quantity is much less likely. Said another way, these words are attempting to emphasize the value of the singular, even while referring to more than one. Thus "persons" is used in legal contexts where the individual is important, "people" is referring to a group of beings in which individuality is not important, and "peoples" is referring to a collection of groups of beings in which the nature of each group remains important.

How's THAT for an answer?

Of course, the only real test is if there are other words that seem to follow the same pattern. So far, I can think of only index and appendix. Others?


Another reason for favoring the regular English -s for plural nouns is the acceptance of a foreign loan word. Initially the foreign plural is adopted along with the singular word, but as the word becomes commonly accepted, we decide we like the -s ending better, so it seems more like American English--for example, "apexes" rather than "apices" and "matrixes" instead of "matrices." The idea that a distinction is made for an item that is rarely plural is intriguing, though. Perhaps the plural of cervix (cervixes) would follow the index and appendix pattern?
Would you please pass me the kleenices? I have a cold and need to blow my nose. Thanks!
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