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  • Nancy Tuten

    17 June 2021

    Alumni, Alumnus, Alumnae, and Alumna

    As the spring graduation season comes to a close here in the United States, now is a good time to talk about the words we use to describe graduates of particular institutions: alumnialumnusalumnae, and alumna. These four words have always been a bit confusing, as many of us struggle to remember which are masculine, which are feminine, which are singular, and which are plural.

    But more recently, all four of these gendered words have become problematic.

    The Origin of These Words

    Alumnus is the Latin word for one male graduate. According to Merriam-Webster, the literal translation is “foster son, pupil.” The plural, alumni, originally referred only to graduates who were male.

    The Latin words for female graduates are alumna (singular) and alumnae (plural). Of course, for a very long time, women were neither encouraged nor, in many cases, even allowed to become educated and, therefore, could not become graduates. But when it came time to choose a single word to refer to a group comprising both male and female graduates, English speakers and writers defaulted to the masculine: alumni.

    Words Matter

    We now realized that using masculine words to represent all people is problematic. (If you aren’t convinced that gendered language matters, I encourage you to watch this short TED Talk on the subject.) We stopped saying, for example, mankind, mailman, chairman, fireman, and policeman and replaced them with humankind, mail carrier, chairperson (or chair), firefighter, and police officer.

    If a man is serving in a role traditionally held by women, we have learned not to add male to our description of that role: a person is not a male nurse but simply a nurse. Likewise, we avoid saying female doctor and say simply doctor. Regardless of gender identity, we no longer distinguish between actors and actresses and refer to all performers as simply actors.

    In short, we avoid suggesting that the default gender is always male and that those who do not identify as male are somehow an exception, an other, something outside the norm.

    The Evolution of Alumni

    Although alumni is the masculine plural form, it has been widely used to refer to all graduates of a particular institution for as long as women have been receiving degrees. Would we have collectively accepted the use of alumnae, the feminine plural word, in reference to a mixed-gender group? I think not. Why, then, has it been OK for so long to use the masculine plural word?

    (I likewise take issue with the use of the word guys to refer to a mixed-gender group of people and especially groups of people who identify as women. When a server in a restaurant calls a group of women guys, I wonder: would that person call a table full of men gals? Hardly. But I digress.)

    The Problem with All Four Words

    Poet and novelist Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We now know that binary language fails to acknowledge those who are nonbinary. We recognize that people who identify as nonbinary do not see themselves in any of the four words under discussion in this article.

    We can do better.

    A Simple Solution

    Authoritative dictionaries and style guides have already sanctioned an alternative to reinforcing the gender binary or to privileging the masculine: we can use, instead, the words alum and alums. We read and hear these shortened forms in casual contexts, and we can easily use them in more formal situations as well.

    The Chicago Manual of Style notes that writers should strive to eliminate gender bias in their language: “Biased language that is not central to the meaning of the work distracts many readers and makes the work less credible to them. Few texts warrant a deliberate display of linguistic biases” (quoted from the online version, for which one must hold a paid subscription).

    As the venerable Merriam-Webster dictionary points out, “If you are concerned about choosing the word that is least likely to arouse someone’s usage hackles, think of alumnus & alumni as male, alumna & alumnae as female, and alum & alums as gender neutral.”

    For Further Discussion

    Elsewhere on this site we discuss the evolution of the singular they.

    Readers may also be interested in an earlier article on the verb to graduate and on the possessive nouns bachelor’s  and master’s as modifiers of the word degree.

    ©Get It Write 2021

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