- Origin of land plants
- The land plant life cycle
- Greek and Latin in botanical terminology ←
Page by: Elizabeth J. Hermsen (Paleontological Research Institution)
Feature Image: Parthenon, Athens, Greece. Credit: Parthenon (Tim Bekaert, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain). Image modified from original.
Many technical terms used in paleobotany and structural botany do not form plurals in the standard English way (by adding "-s" or "-es"). Rather, they transform in other ways. For example, a single sporangium (spore-producing structure) becomes plural sporangia, not sporangiums. Why is this? It is because many terms follow Latin, and less commonly Greek, rules for forming plurals.
Latin has five declensions (categories) and three genders (feminine, masculine, and neuter) of nouns. Each declension follows different rules for forming plurals, which is done by changing word endings. In declensions where word gender varies, word endings are additionally determined by gender. Word endings also vary by the role of the word in a sentence (for example, subject, object, possessive, etc.). All of this may seem a bit confusing to an English speaker. However, you do not have to be a Latin scholar to use Latin nouns in English. Many Latin words used in English (whether truly taken from classical Latin, created later, or Latinized) follow the structure of first and second declension Latin nouns in the nominative case. The nominative case is the form a noun takes when used as the subject of a sentence.
- 1st declension, feminine, nominative: words ending in -a in the singular end in -ae in the plural.
- 2nd declension, masculine, nominative: words ending in -us in the singular end in -i in the plural.
- 2nd declension, neuter, nominative: words ending in -um in the singular end in -a in the plural.
The word genus (the taxonomic rank above the species) does not follow the rules above, even though one might assume that it should take an "-i" in its plural form. Instead, it becomes genera in the plural. This is because the word "genus" is a 3rd declension neuter Latin noun. Its plural is made by adding an "-a" to the root for the word genus ("gener-").
You can consult an English dictionary for a summary of the Latin and Greek singular and plural noun forms frequently encountered in English. You can also look up individual words in order to find their plural forms. Note that the Latin/Greek or English plural form can be used for some terms (for example, cactus can become cacti or cactuses in the plural). In scientific writing, Latin and Greek endings are often the ones favored, although exceptions exist. For example, the word stigma (the pollen-receiving part of a flower's carpel or pistil) commonly takes the plural form stigmas rather than stigmata in botany.
|Singular ending||Plural ending||Word form||Plant vocabulary examples||Other examples|
|-a||-ae||Latin||gemma, gemmae||alumna, alumnae; larva, larvae|
|-ex, -ix||-ices||Latin||apex, apices||index, indices; matrix, matrices|
|-ies||-ies||Latin||species, species||series, series|
|-is||-es||Latin||symbiosis, symbioses||analysis, analyses|
|-ma||-mata||Greek||stoma, stomata||schema, schemata|
|-on||-a||Greek||taxon, taxa||phenomenon, phenomena|
|-um||-a||Latin||antheridium, antheridia||datum, data|
|-us||-i||Latin||strobilus, strobili||alumnus, alumni|
The building blocks of vocabulary
Scientific terminology can seem like a bunch of intimidating jargon. Many scientific terms, however, are made up of building blocks that have Greek, or sometimes Latin, roots. If you can recognize these building blocks and understand their meanings, it becomes easier to understand and learn scientific terms.
The table below lists some prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms that commonly show up in structural botany and paleobotany, along with examples of terms in which they appear. You can use this table to help you remember (or even figure out) the meanings of terms. As an example, let's look at the term "megasporophyll." It consists of three building blocks; we can find the meanings of these building blocks by consulting the table below:
- mega- = large
- sporo- = spore
- -phyll = leaf
Thus, mega + sporo + phyll = large-spore leaf. In fact, a megasporophyll is a leaf that bears structures that produce large spores (megaspores) in heterosporous plants. What is a heterosporous plant?
- hetero- = different
- -sporous = spore
Thus, a hetero + sporous plant is a different-spore plant. Specifically, it is a plant that produces two types of spores: microspores and megaspores. Using the table below, can you figure out what a microspore is? How does it differ from a megaspore?
Some notes on the table: Definitions, word origins, etc., have been simplified. For prefixes ending in "a" or "o", the "a" or "o" may be dropped before a vowel; the modified prefix shown in parentheses.
|Word part||Language||Origin||Meaning||Examples in structural botany||Other notes|
|a-, an-||Greek||not, without||asexual|
|actino- (actin-)||Greek||aktis||beam, ray||actinostele||This combining form often indicates a radiating or star-like structure or symmetry.|
|allo- (all-)||Greek||allos||different, other||allorhizic|
|amphi- (amph-)||Greek||amphi||both, on both sides||amphiphloic|
|Greek||angeion||case, container, vessel||angiosperm, gametangium, sporangium|
|-arch||Greek||archē||beginning, point of origin||endarch|
|Greek||karpos||fruit||apocarpous, carpel, mericarp, mesocarp, schizocarp, sporocarp, syncarpous||Referring to a carpel or fruit, part of a fruit (e.g., mesocarp), or having carpels or fruits of a given type (e.g., apocarpous). May also refer to a fruit-like structure (e.g., sporocarp).|
|cauli- (caul-), caulo-, |
|Greek, Latin||kaulos, caulis||stalk, stem||pachycaulous||In the form of an adjective, having a stem of a given type.|
|ceno- (cen-), caeno- (caen-), caino- |
|Greek||kainos||recent||Cenozoic, Paleocene||The ending "-cene" is used for the names of epochs in the Cenozoic era (e.g., Miocene, Pliocene).|
|coleo- (cole-)||Greek||koleos||covering, sheath||coleorhiza|
|-cot, -cotyl, |
|Greek||kotylēdōn||cotyledons (seed leaves)||hypocotyl, monocot, monocotyledon, monocotyledonous||In seed plants, the cotyledons are the "seed leaves" that occur on the sporophyte embryo in the seed. The ending "-cot" is a short version of cotyledon (monocots or monocotyledons are seed plants having one cotyledon).|
|cyto- (cyt-), |
|Greek||kytos||cell||coenocytic, sporocyte, statocyte|
|derma- (derm-), dermo-, |
|Greek||derma||skin||dermal, endodermis, phelloderm, protoderm||Typically, referring to the outer tissue ("skin") of the plant body, although may be used in the names of other tissue layers (e.g., endodermis, which is considered part of the cortex).|
|diplo- (dipl-)||Greek||diploos||double, paired||diploid|
|-dromous||Greek||dromos||course, running||actinodromous||"-dromous" is often used as a suffix in terms that describe leaf venation patterns.|
|e-, ex-||Latin||ex-||absent, not||eligulate, exindusiate|
|-enchyma||Greek||énchyma||infusion||aerenchyma, parenchyma, sclerenchyma||In plants, this ending denotes a tissue (e.g., parenchyma) or the cells that make up a given type of tissue (e.g., parenchyma cells).|
|endo- (end-)||Greek||endon||within||endarch, endodermis, endogenous, endosperm, endosporic|
|epi- (ep-)||Greek||epi||on, over, upon||epigeous, epigynous, epiphyte|
|exo- (ex-)||Greek||exō||outer, outside||exogenous|
|-form||Latin||forma||in the form of||fusiform, scalariform|
|-gam, -gamy, -gamous||Greek||gamia||marriage, union||cryptogam, phanerogam, siphonogamy, zooidogamy|
|gameto- (gamet-)||Greek||gameîn||to marry||gametangium, gametophyte||Used as a prefix for structures or organisms that produce gametes (e.g., gametangium, gametophyte).|
|Greek||-genēs||generating, giving rise to||endogenous, exogenous, Paleogene, spermatogenous|
|glauco- (glauc-)||Greek||glaukos||blue-green, gray, or opaque||glaucophyte|
|gravi-||Latin||gravis||heavy||gravitropism||In gravitropism, indicates a response to gravity.|
|gyno- (gyn-), -gynous,|
|Greek||gynē||female, woman||epigynous, gynoecium, hypogynous, hypogyny|
|Greek||homos||the same, similar||homosporous|
|hypo- (hyp-)||Greek||hypo||under||hypocotyl, hypogeous, hypogynous|
|ligni- (lign-), ligno-||Latin||lignum||wood||lignin, lignophyte|
|Greek||megas||large||megaspore||A prefix denoting large structures. It also denotes egg-producing (female) structures in heterosporous plants.|
|meta- (met-)||Greek||meta||after, later||metaxylem|
|Greek||mesos||middle||mesarch, mesocarp, mesophyll|
|Greek||mikros||small||microspore||A prefix denoting small structures. It also denotes sperm-producing (male) structures in heterosporous plants.|
|Greek||monos||one, single||monocot, monocotyledon, monocotyledonous, monophyletic|
|morpho- (morph-), |
|Greek||morphē||form, shape||heteromorphic, isomorphic, morphology|
|Greek||oikos||house||androecium, dioecious, gynoecium|
|ont-||Greek||einai||being, existence||haplontic, diplontic, haplodiplontic|
|ortho- (orth-)||Greek||orthos||straight, upright||orthotropic|
|Greek||palaios||ancestral, ancient, old||paleobotany, Paleozoic, Paleogene|
|-phore||Greek||phoros||bearing, bearer of||pneumatophore, sorophore, sporangiophore|
|phyllo- (phyll-), |
|Greek||phyllon||leaf||anisophyllous, chlorophyll, cladophyll, euphyllophyte, mesophyll, phyllotaxis, sporophyll||Referring to a type of leaf (e.g., sporophyll), a structure similar to a leaf (e.g., cladophyll), or a region/portion of a leaf (e.g., mesophyll). As an ending, may indicate a leaf pigment (e.g., chlorophyll).|
|phylo- (phyl-)||Greek||phylon||kind, tribe||monophyletic, phylogeny|
|Greek||phyton||plant||bryophyte, euphyllophyte, gametophyte, hydrophyte, lignophyte, Monilophyta, sporophyte, xerophyte||The ending "-phyta" is used to denote the rank of phylum (division) in plant classification; the ending "-phyte" is used more informally and may correspond to a phylum or to an unranked grouping of plants (e.g., euphyllophytes). It can also indicate a type of plant (e.g., xerophyte, a plant adapted to arid environments).|
|pneumato- (pneumat-)||Greek||pneuma||air, breath||pneumatophore|
|poly-||Greek||polys||many||polysporangiophytes||"Polysporangiophytes" includes more combining forms on this list. Can you find them?|
|pro-||Greek/Latin||pro||before, earlier||procambium, progymnosperm|
|proto- (prot-)||Greek||prōtos||first||protoderm, protoxylem|
|pseudo- (pseud-)||Greek||pseudēs||fake, false||pseudoelater|
|pterido- (pterid-)||Greek||pteris||fern||pteridophyte, pteridosperm|
|pycno- (pycn-)||Greek||pyknos||compact, dense||pycnoxylic|
|rhizo- (rhiz-), -rhiza, -rrhiza||Greek||rhiza||root||allorhizic, coleorhiza, ectomycorrhiza, rhizoid, rhizome||Referring to roots, structures with similarities to roots (e.g., rhizoids and rhizomes), or things related to roots.|
|sclero- (scler-)||Greek||sklēros||hard||sclerenchyma, sclerotesta|
|siphono- (siphon-)||Greek||siphon||pipe, tube||siphonogamy, siphonostele|
|soleno- (solen-)||Greek||solen||pipe, tube||solenostele|
|New Latin/Greek||spora||spore||endosporic, homosporous, sporangium, sporocarp, sporocyte, sporophyte|
|sperma- (sperm-), spermo-, spermato- (spermat-)||Greek||sperma||seed, sperm||spermatogenous, spermatophyte|
|Greek||sperma||seed, seed-bearing||angiosperm, endosperm, gymnosperm, pteridosperm|
|stomo- (stom-), |
|Greek||stoma||mouth||stoma, peristome||Referring to a pore or another type of opening.|
|sym-, syn-||Greek||syn||together, with||symbiosis, syncarpous|
|taxo- (tax-), taxi-, |
|Greek||taxis||arrangement, order||phyllotaxis, taxonomy|
|-testa||Latin||testa||shell||sarcotesta, sclerotesta||In plants, the testa is the seed coat.|
|tetra- (tetr-)||Greek||tettara||four||tetrad, tetrasporic|
|Greek||trophikos||nutrition, relating to nutrition||autotrophic, matrotrophy|
|Greek||tropos||turn, turning||gravitropism, orthotropic, plagiotropic, thigmotropism||In plants, indicates a growth response to a stimulus (e.g., gravity, touch) or orientation of growth (e.g., orthotropic, plagiotropic).|
|xylo- (xyl-), |
|Greek||xylon||wood, having a given type of wood||pycnoxylic|
|zoo- (zo-), |
|Greek||zōē, zōos||animal, motile||Phanerozoic, zoidogamy/zooidogamy||In structural botany, used to indicate motility (e.g., zoidogamy). In geology, used in the names of eons and eras (e.g., Mesozoic).|
Selected references & further reading
Note: Free full text is made available by the publisher for items marked with a green star.
Books & textbooks
Evert, R.F., and S.E. Eichhorn. 2013. Raven Biology of Plants, 8th ed. W.H. Freeman and Co., New York, New York.
* Dictionary.com: https://www.dictionary.com/
* Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online): https://www.merriam-webster.com/
* Mahoney, K., and the Latdict Group. 2002–2019. Latdict [This site has a Latin-English dictionary and covers some Latin grammar]. http://latin-dictionary.net/
Websites discussing Latin & Greek plurals, with examples
* Hirst, R. Forming Greek- and Latin-derived nouns [a short and simple summary]: http://web.utk.edu/~hirst/460/nouns.html
* Lexico: Plurals of English nouns taken from Latin or Greek: https://www.lexico.com/grammar/plurals-of-english-nouns-taken-from-latin-or-greek
* Nichol, M. 2016. Daily writing tips: Latin plural endings. https://www.dailywritingtips.com/latin-plural-endings/2016.
* Wikipedia: English plurals [this page includes an in-depth discussion]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_plurals
2002. A dictionary of prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms from Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged. Merriam-Webster, Springfield, Massachusetts. [PDF distributed by Scripps National Spelling Bee, spellingbee.com]
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Page first released: 24 October 2019; last updated 14 June 2020.