Awaiting my turn in the dentist’s chair, I started thumbing an old copy of ‘Arizona Highways.’
It was either that or ‘Dentistry Today’, and I figured that before an hour was up I’d know more than I necessarily want to about the dental arts in general and my personal oral apparatus in particular. And anyway, ‘Arizona Highways’ is a fine publication full of pretty words and informative pictures and colorful advertorials plugging everything from authentic Southwestern art I can’t afford to posh Sonoran resorts I can’t afford. I had just finished drinking in the delicious details of a sumptuous Lake Havasu dinner cruise I can’t afford a when my eye lit upon this irresistible header:
“Cacti or Cactuses – readers find the proper plural a thorny question.”
As your luck would have it, that’s something I know something about. Stickery succulents, I mean, not grammar. Fact is, it’s long been my custom to spend a couple months each winter in Tucson, and it’s been my custom while in Tucson to get acquainted with at least one new hiking trail each week, which practice has made me intimately – and at times painfully – familiar with the Sonoran Desert’s most fearsome flora. And it is by virtue of that hard-won credential that I herewith settle this divisive question for good and always.
They’re both wrong.
With all due respect to the Romans, for whom I harbor a deep and abiding affection, their language isn’t just dead, it’s petrified. And even Latin’s most ardent admirers must admit that the needlessly abrupt “-i” as a plural suffix form for words ending in “-us” is irregularly applied, at best, and is at worst timorous and unreliable.
The accepted plural of octopus, for example, is generally accepted to be octopi, and if an abacus were used to count itself twice it would be abaci. On the other hand, colleges and universities have no compunction about maintaining multiple campuses, and no person of serious mind has ever described a convocation of unfairly demeaned anatomical orifices as a clutch of ani.
Perhaps worse, “cacti” carries the subtle stink of affectation; a 50-cent shine on a 10-cent word that persons of unlikely intellectual ambitions trot out because they think it makes them sound scholarly. As a plural for cactus, the word “cacti” is to be shunned, as are all who use it.
Turning to “cactuses”, please understand that I have nothing against the “-es” plural suffix. It has a long and honorable record of service. It’s comfortable, predictable, versatile. A short and retiring supplement, it wields a potent grammatical authority that complete words of far greater definition and prestige can only dream of. It’s just no good for cactus.
In that case, “-es” takes the starch out of the very word it means to exalt. It sucks all of the smart, staccato vigor out the hard Cs and the T, and sends an otherwise distinctive term sliding down into a hissing swamp of weedy sibilance. Aesthetically, “cactuses” does not well become the mouth. Taxonomically, it’s a grave affront to some of proud Nature’s most durable, and most dangerous, herbaceous creations. It’s a blameless suffixed forced to evil purpose by the ignorant, and people of good conscience will avoid it in both written and spoken discourse.
Having now seen the two widely accepted plural forms of “cactus” utterly and irrevocably discredited, it would be fair to wonder what alternative I propose. Only this:
The only legitimate plural of cactus is…cactus.
How simple, and yet how sublime. And don’t look so shocked. It works for moose, and for fish, and for pants. Why not cactus? Go ahead – try it on for size.
“Thank you for the generous gift of this single potted cactus.”
“Thank you for the generous gift of these two potted cactus.”
“Ouch! I pricked my finger on this solitary barrel cactus.”
“Hello, 911 dispatch? I have fallen face-first into an unspecified number of barrel cactus”
See? There’s no discomfort associated with this flexible usage, nor unpleasant aftertaste. Fact is, I’ve been doubling-down on cactus for years without social stigma or legal complication. And if my inspired expedient occasionally meets with resistance from the ignorant and the puritanical, right-thinking folk invariably thank me effusively, and are grateful to be at last free of the self-doubt and grammatical uncertainty that formerly plagued them in cactus-related situations.
And you’re welcome, too.