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Difference Between Formulas and Formulae

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The words ‘formulas’ and ‘formulae’ are both plurals of the word ‘formula’. ‘Formula’ comes from Latin. It originally meant a number of things that had to do with some sort of structure, such as ‘shape’, ‘form’, ‘pattern’, ‘rule’, ‘lawsuit’, and so on. ‘Formula’ was a diminutive of ‘forma’, which means that they meant much the same thing, but a formula was a smaller version of a forma. The word ‘forma’ was later incorporated into English as the word ‘form’.

A formula, in English, means one of a few things, though it focuses the most on structure or methods. It can mean a mathematical rule that is expressed in with numerals or other symbols. In chemistry, it is an expression of the components of a chemical. For instance, H20 is the formula for water. Similarly, it can mean a recipe to create some sort of product. ‘Formula’ has also been used more specifically to mean a substitute for mothers’ milk. Finally, it can mean a way of bringing forth a desired result, like in the phrase ‘formula for success’.

The two plural forms are said to come from English and Latin. ‘Formulae’ is the Latin pluralization and ‘formulas’ is the English plural. This is partially true. ‘Formulas’ is the English plural, but things are more complicated on the Latin side.

Latin has a grammar category known as ‘noun cases’. This is when a noun changes form based on what part of speech it is, which is fairly similar to how verbs conjugate based on the tense and the person who is performing it. Latin has six noun cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, and vocative. The nominative case is the subject of – or the one doing – a finite verb, genitive is used to express that something is from or of the noun, dative is when something is directed towards an indirect object, accusative is the direct object of a transitive verb, ablative indicates separation or movement away from something, and vocative is used when the object is being spoken to.

Each of these cases has both a singular and a plural form. There is usually some overlap in the words themselves, so something that is a plural in one form may be a singular in another case. ‘Formulae’ is one example. In the nominative and vocative cases, it is a plural. Genitive and dative, however, have it as a singular and their plurals are ‘formularum’ and ‘formulis’, respectively.

To make matters even more complicated, ‘formulas’ is the plural in the accusative case, with the singular being ‘formulam’.

In any event, the –ae suffix in Latin is used to make a nominative or vocative plural out of a word that ends in an ‘a’ as well as creating a singular in the genitive and dative cases.

In English, the –s suffix is the most common suffix used to make something plural. There are other plurals in the language. The plural of ‘formula’ is one example of a plural that was borrowed from another language. For some, such as ‘goose’ and ‘geese’, it was a holdover from very old English. Originally, the word was ‘gos’ and the plural was ‘ges’ and that was kept on long after –s was the official plural.

In summary, the words ‘formulas’ and ‘formulae’ are both official plurals of ‘formula’. While ‘formulae’ was one of the original plurals in Latin, so was ‘formulas’, though ‘formulae’ was more common because it was the plural of the nominative case. The word ‘formulas’ likely stuck around because –s was a common plural in English. It is much more important to pick one and use it consistently than which one you use.


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