The Plural(s) of Asparagus

In a recent post, I had originally mentioned asparagus/asparagi as an example of hypercorrection due to the common Latin pluralization rule of –us –> –i .  However, from further investigation I’m not so sure that asparagus/asparagi is actually so “wrong” after all.

Frequency in Modern Usage

nGram Viewer results:

Plural Asapaguses

Some observations using the same corpus

  • English-language texts that use asparagi are predominately scientific articles as used in binomial nomenclature of biological taxonomy, e.g. puccinia asparagi (a plant disease) or tuber asparagi (a kind of herb).
  • Search results (with the English corpus setting switched on), included a bunch of Italian articles, on diverse subjects, that use asparagi (plural of asparago).

Historical Considerations

Etymologically, the origin of asparagus doesn’t seem to be conclusively Greek or Latin but a derivative of a much earlier (hypothetical) language, Proto-Indo-European. Using EtymOnline and the OED as my sources:

[L., a. Gr. ἀσπάραγος, properly ἀσϕάραγος, of doubtful origin. In med.L. often sparagus, sparagi (OIt. sparagi, sparaci), found in Eng. c 1000… influence of herbalists and horticultural writers made asparagus familiar…corrupted before 1650 to sparagrass, sparrow-grass, which remained the polite name during the 18th c. …During the 19th century asparagus returned into literary and polite use, leaving sparrow-grass to the illiterate…]

(Oxford English Dictionary CD version 2.0, 1999)

Functional and Cognitive Linguistic Considerations

From the functional/cognitive linguistic approach, the difference between asparagus and asparaguses likely depends on how the speaker perceives the structure of the referent: either as an uncountable (mass) noun or a count(able) noun.  In the case of a speaker who utters asparaguses, the referent is likely considered countable (“Two asparaguses on my plate.”).  Whereas, the speaker who utters asparagus is likely to consider the referent to be uncountable (“Sauté four asparagus for dinner tonight, please.”) and therefore the idea of a pluralized asparagus technically doesn’t exist (any number of asparagus stalks is still asparagus).

Summary & Conclusion

Basically, I’m in favor of all three of the plural forms discussed above:

  • asparagi for binomial nomenclature as used in science, or quoting texts related to Italian gastronomy
  • asparagus/asparaguses depending on speaker’s (potentially subconscious) perception

Although not mentioned above, for amusement, I’m also in favor of asparagu, asparagee, asparagae, asparagugu, and lastly and exhaustively asparagugugaga.

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5 Responses to The Plural(s) of Asparagus

  1. Thank you for this excellent answer! I grow three varieties of asparagus and have been talking about this species of plants often lately. Always the plural comes up and both plurals seem awkward. Asparaguses feels physically awkward to say and so I go with the less common plural type and say asparagi. Nice to see the majority will understand this, even though my spell checker doesn’t like either. As for your exhaustive list of amusing alternatives, I would like to add; using the plural asperagi has led me to call my plants my aspraguys, and therefor referring to any individual plant as an asparaguy. Appropriate since most bought plants are male clones. However, one asserted her femaleness by making berries, so I now call her my asparagal. Planting her seeds will give me an even mix of gendered plants, so I will soon have several asparagals as well as asparaguys. Thanks to your influence, when next I have baby plants, I will call them asparagugugagas, if only when talking just to them.

    • cjkfung says:

      Asparaguys, asparagals, asparagugugagas: I love it!
      Now imagining a children’s cartoon program with talking asparagus plants!

    • navalator says:

      This piece is priceless. So what would one call just one individual example on a dinner plate? I have a friend in California who uses just one, pickled, as a substitute for celery in her Bloody Marys (maries?). Always a crowd pleaser.

      *Best regards,* *Fred Harvey* *Resident Curmudgeon & Misanthrope*

      *Ocean Marina Yacht ClubMoo 4, 274/10 Sukhumvit Highway Tambon na Chom Thian, Amphur Sattahip, Chonburi, Chon Buri 20250KINGDOM OF THAILAND* *Mobile: 086-036-1700* *Land: 038-237-342* *Country code: 66*

  2. I just got to this article because I was not sure what the prural for asparagus was, see below what triggered the question.

    Went to a restaurant, ordered a dish that had ‘asparagus’ according to the description in the menu. They either took advantage of my ingorance or the limitations of the language because the dish had ONE asparagus!!!

  3. John says:

    Asparagracius to you both for your fascinating input.

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