LawProse Lesson #118
Why isn’t *subpoenae the plural of subpoena? In response to our last lesson on subpoenas duces tecum, many people asked: Why isn’t the plural *subpoenae duces tecum? Subpoena is a singular English noun — it was never a Latin noun. Rather, the English word subpoena derived from the Latin phrase sub poena, meaning “under penalty” or “under pain.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates subpoena from the late 15th century. And the plural subpoenas appears in English law as early as 1509 in the title of a statute “for Subpoenas and Privy Seals.” That’s the only plural until the early 19th century when *subpoenae first appeared — in a misquotation from Coke’s Institutes (Coke actually wrote sub poena). So the false Latin plural *subpoenae is a hypercorrection and, in fact, not a Latin word at all. Two similar examples of hypercorrection are *octopi for octopuses and *ignorami for ignoramuses. (But the –ae does show up in the correct past-tense verb form subpoenaed, so that may add to the confusion.) For the most part, though, people seem to get this right. A quick search on Google Books reveals over 2.4 million hits for subpoenas, but only about 11,000 for *subpoenae. Similar results are found in the Westlaw databases of JLR (148 instances for –ae; more than 10,000 for –as) and Allcases (1,025 instances for –ae; more than 10,000 for –as). Although there is no penalty for writing or saying *subpoenae, other than the funny looks you’ll get, there ought to be a law. Then those who adopt the hypercorrect misusage would be under penalty. *Invariably inferior form. Sources: Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 856 (3d ed. 2011). Garner’s Modern American Usage 782 (3d ed. 2009). H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 598 (Ernest Gowers ed., 2d ed. 1965). Edward Coke, 4 Institutes of the Lawes of England 23 (1606). John Hatsell, 1 Precedents of Proceedings in the House of Commons 6 (1818). Oxford English Dictionary (updated online ed.), s.v. “subpoena,” accessed 10 May 2013, www.oed.com/view/Entry/192908?rskey=cF4Pyfresult=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.