As The Atlantic’s de facto senior emoji correspondent, I try to keep abreast of all emerging emojio-grammatical issues. Lately, one has risen above the rest: Should English speakers refer to more than one emoji character as these emoji or these emojis?
Put simply: What’s the plural of emoji?
In written English right now, there’s little consensus on this question. National publications have not settled on a regular style. The Atlantic, for instance, used both (emoji, emojis) in the last quarter of 2015. And in October alone in The New York Times, you could find the technology reporter Vindu Goel covering Facebook’s “six new emoji,” despite, two weeks later, Austin Ramzy detailing the Australian foreign minister’s “liberal use of emojis.” (Julie Bishop, the minister in question, memorably describes Vladimir Putin with a “pouting face” character: 😡.)
“We haven’t been very consistent and haven’t added a stylebook entry on this,” wrote Philip Corbett, an editor at the Times and the keeper of its style guide, in an email.“But I favor the AP’s approach—emojis—because it avoids any ambiguity or confusion.”
I asked: If these emojis is clearer than these emoji, why don’t we pluralize these sushi as these sushis? Americans seem to have no trouble grasping that a sushi dinner encompasses more than one California roll.
“No idea, really, except these things can be flukish,” he said. “Tsunamis is pretty common in English. And looking at another source, you’ve got medium-media but stadium-stadiums.”
Tsunamis! Touché, Corbett. You win this round, being a professional grammarian and all.
When I talked to similar folks at the Associated Press, they said they had chosen emojis because of its popularity and clarity as well.
“If my memory serves correctly, we consulted with our social-media experts at the AP. Their recommendation was to use the -s for the plural form,” David Minthorn, co-editor of the AP stylebook, told me. He said the Associated Press began recommending emojis as the plural in 2014.
So that’s open and shut, right? We should just all adopt these emojis right away. But with all due respect, I think this question isn’t nearly as straightforward as asking some people who tweet for a news agency. In fact, with further research, I think the AP’s recommendation here is misguided if not outright incorrect.
But to confirm my views, I had to go farther. I had to go to the source.
Like sushi, emoji as both word and idea was loaned to U.S. English from Japanese. Emoji, in fact, are one of the few technologies that managed to start in Japan’s peculiar smartphone market and spread to the entire world. Many Japanese cell makers let users send emoji years before Apple and Google adopted them.
In Japanese, emoji is a compound: E roughly means picture (絵), while moji means written character (文字). In that language, one or many emoji characters are both referred to as emoji.
This unity of singular and plural forms is common in Japanese, according to Yoshiko Matsumoto, a Stanford University professor and the coordinator of its Japanese language program. “Although there are ways to indicate plurality of objects, it is also fair to say that the same noun form tends to be used in Japanese for one object or for multiples of the same object,” she said in an email.
This differs from the English model of pluralization—or, at least, it does most of the time. English usually alters the end of nouns to indicate their number, appending an -s or some other letter: More than one dog becomes dogs. But as many aggravated grade schoolers can tell you, English nouns—especially older English nouns—can pluralize in other ways. As the linguist John McWhorter gets into in this video, some of these are kind of weird: More than one goose turn into geese; an ox is transfigured into oxen. And still other English words follow the Japanese fashion: A bunch of moose stay moose.
But this doesn’t explain why different loan words take on different plural forms. Upon its absorption into English, why did sushi make like moose, but tsunami follow dogs?
Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who frequently writes about language on the Internet, made some sense of it. An intuitive but sometimes conflicting set of rules govern how loan words—especially Japanese loan words—enter the English language, she told me.
“As a general rule, once a word is borrowed into another language, it gets treated like any other word in the target language,” said McCulloch in an email. “But English doesn’t always obey this rule, especially when the word is borrowed from a language that many English speakers are familiar with. Historically, we see this a lot in Latin, in words like alumnus/alumni.”
At the same time, she said, a third rule can also guide loan-word adoption: Sometimes English speakers will use the same form for a loan word’s singular and plural form because the root-language plural is hard to remember or because it sounds pretentious. The Latin loans data and media both follow this principle.
With Japanese nouns, said McCulloch, all these rules overlap:
With words from Japanese, like emoji, tsunami, and sushi, the “avoidance” strategy and the “use the other language’s plurals” strategy actually line up (most nouns in Japanese are the same in singular and plural), but they’re still in strong competition with the “treat loanwords as if they’re regular English words” strategy. So, as we can see in tsunamis versus sushi, sometimes we end up with different results for different words.
This explains the confusion over emoji/emojis, but not which words are likely to get an -s and which aren’t. I asked Matsumoto if she had noticed a pattern in why some words stayed invariable and some gained an extra -s.
“My impression is that whether or not a Japanese loan word is pluralized largely depends on the speaker and on the word,” she said. “When the speaker knows (or speaks) Japanese, he or she may tend to use loan words in the singular form, e.g. ‘After one year of learning Japanese, I now can write 500 kanji.’”
Then she offered the most compelling theory so far: “Why not tsunami and sushis? It seems to me that sushi refers to distinctly Japanese (or ‘non-English’) things, while tsunami is a less culturally-bound phenomenon.”
This background, of course, doesn’t answer whether it should be emojis or emoji. We can dispatch that question fairly quickly, though.
Partisans of emojis may highlight that, in a Google Fight (that is, an unscientific test of which search query returns the most results), “emojis are” wallops “emoji are.” They may also point out that “these emoji” loses to “these emojis,” though not as badly. And they can remind everyone of that one time last year when President Obama thanked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for karate, karaoke, manga, anime—“and, of course, emojis.”
But not all language disputes should be resolved by querying the vox populi. (Or, for that matter, by querying the news site Vox, which uses both forms but seems to favor emoji.) In the French language, an advisory body exists—the Académie française—to authoritatively settle all controversies of grammar and usage. The Academy even periodically issues an official French dictionary, though the government does not need to comply with its proclamations. If only there was a similar body for emoji, a council of elders which could once and for all free us of our plight.
Actually, there is. It’s called the Unicode Consortium, and it’s an international nonprofit which standardizes how computers communicate text. You’re reading these words right now, in fact, thanks to Unicode, the technology which the Consortium manages.
The Unicode Consortium has more power over emoji than the Académie does over French, because Unicode determines the boundaries of the emoji vocabulary. Every year or so, the Consortium announces about 50 new symbols that will join the ranks of emoji. There’s now a taco emoji—or, for that matter, emoji in a variety of skin tones—because the Unicode Consortium decreed them into existence.
The Consortium doesn’t have the same power over the English language that it does over Unicode, but I think its advisements should be weighted heavily. And in nearly every English-language reference to emoji characters, the Unicode Consortium uses the s-less plural: emoji. The very first line of its emoji FAQ reads, “Emoji are ‘picture characters’”—that is, an unambiguous deployment of the plural emoji. The word emojis only appears on Unicode’s site in informal message boards or quoted press coverage.
The Consortium is not alone. Apple, whose color emoji font has provided the culturally definitive “look” of emoji characters, also seems to favor emoji. iOS documentation at one point explicitly equates the plural-noun emoticons with the plural-noun emoji. Apple and Unicode both also refer to the comprehensive set of emoji characters—the quasi-language called emoji—as “emoji.”
Google, despite letting Android users communicate in emoji, doesn’t seem to mention the word on its website.
Is this enough to doom emojis? Hardly. For one, Apple endorses a number of odd linguistic tics—it never uses an article when talking about the iPhone, for instance—that an independent press should never adopt.
But I think Unicode’s usage in particular should be cause enough for AP to reconsider. The Unicode Consortium internationalized emoji; it is the reason English speakers outside Japan can use emoji at all. It only ever chooses the plural emoji, and it seems to do this without any lack of clarity. Since emoji is grammatically correct within English, and matches the expectations that rule over other Japanese loan words, isn’t that enough to tip the scales in its favor?
And there’s something else, too. On top of all these technical citations and morphological justifications, I think any speaker attuned to aesthetics should favor these emoji over these emojis. It is undeniable that the word emojis invites aging actors and unknowing grandparents to pronounce it like/uh-MO-jiss/, the last syllable rhyming with kiss. And that’s just ghastly.