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They still have to pass their finals, though

So, the word alumni.

It’s getting on for commencement season at my employer, and the bookstore is filled with hats and shirts and mugs and camisoles and shot glasses and license plate frames and mugs bearing that word. So it’s right there at the front of my attention. And y’all know, Gentle Readers, that I am by nature a usage stickler, while by intellectual principle a descriptivist. So I am finding it difficult to acquiesce to the increasingly frequent use of alumni in the singular.

I do, fairly often, have a conversation with a graduate of the university that employs me where I explain that alumni have alumni privileges, but they need to have an alumni card, which can be obtained from the alumni office. While the use of alumni as a modifier still strikes me as somewhat awkward, I have accepted it as the Way Things Are, and the fact that the usage is not parallel to the other categories (students must have student cards, not students cards; faculty members have faculty cards for whatever that’s worth, and employees have staff cards, so there’s not really a passion for parallelism here) only means that the English Language is a screwy thing, which we all knew. Right?

But I find it difficult to use the correct singular in conversation addressing a female graduate. You are entitled to borrowing privileges as an alumumble, I say, feeling that my workplace is not the place to indulge my pretentiousness. Also—is it possible that someone will be offended at being called an alumna for some reason, the way certain females who act detest being called actresses? I have never actually experience that with alumna, but it makes me feel somehow uncomfortable anyway. I can countenance the use of alum as an all-purpose singular, but then there is already something called alum, not that it comes up very often or is likely to cause confusion. And I can use alumnae in reference to a woman’s college (the Bryn Mawr Alumnae, as far as I’m concerned, include my male co-worker who got his graduate degree there, except that I really think of the term as focusing on undergraduates) but would have difficulty, I think, using it otherwise: at the alumni-faculty softball game, the outfield of Sally, Sydney and Soon-Yi were slick fielding alumumble. I know the stickler usage of course, I just find it awkward to actually use.

For all my mumbling, however, I cannot be comfortable with the use of alumni in the singular. I am an alumni, people say, and I stick my tongue into my cheek to keep from blurting out all of you? It just seems wrong, so terribly wrong, it cannot be right. Better the mumbling, or the pretentiousness of correct usage (or, for a man, the simple and comfortable correctness of alumnus; we also get to wear comfortable shoes and have pockets in our trousers—win! Oh, and be Presidents and priests and that) than an alumni.

All of which is just to ramble, but here’s the question: on those hats and shirts and whatnots, sometimes the print is like this:


which seems perfectly reasonable to me, but sometimes the print is like this:


which seems utterly and completely terrible and bad. Am I wrong? Is this just me? Am I not right? Or am I right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Perhaps you'd be happier about this if you think of the alumumble as more akin to a sports team than to a descriptive category.

You might technically be a New York Yankee, but if your shirt lists your team name it will say Yankees, you will obtain your Yankees id card from the Yankees back office and your Yankees tickets from the Yankees front office (all plural), and the singular is shortened to bum. Which rhymes with alum.

And no, this wasn't all a build-up to a Yankees Suck joke.

Yeah, the whole thing grates on me, too, but I think Michael has a helpful thought up there.

One thing that might help you for informal purposes is that alum and alum have stresses on different syllables and are therefore pronounced differently.

Clearly the thing to do is to marry one of your classmates, so you can put an "ALUMNI" sticker on your car and have it be correct. I note that you, and your commenters, have in fact largely followed this advice. :^) (Sorry Michael.)

Or get degrees from two different schools, making you an alumni (or alumnae) all by yourself.

And I stayed within the Seven Sisters.

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