Alumna Alumnae Alumni Alumnus

Parents have many proud moments throughout their children’s lives, but graduation day is one of the most treasured times. The students stand, faces shining, in their long gowns. “Pomp and Circumstance” plays. The accomplished scholars walk across the stage. There are many words for students, such as pupils or learners. But there’s another term you might hear for people who have graduated: alumni. What does that term mean? And what about the related words alumna, alumnus, and alumnae?

The Definitions

Alumni: Graduates or former students of a particular educational institution; former members, employees, contributors, or the like.

The Forms

Alumna is the feminine singular form.

“Sophie grinned. If he thought she was a member of the ton, an alumna of dozens of balls and parties, then she must be playing her role to perfection.” ―Julia Quinn, An Offer from a Gentleman

Alumnus is the masculine singular form.

“If ever there was a shining alumnus from the school of hard knocks, it is I.” ―Chris Kreski, Life Lessons from Xena Warrior Princess: A Guide to Happiness, Success, and Body Armor

Alumni is the masculine plural form, used for a group of mixed gender or a group of men.

“It is as true today as it was in Chaucer’s time that there is a class of men who ‘gladly learn and gladly teach,’ and our college trustees and overseers and rich alumni take advantage of this and expect them to live on wages which an expert chauffeur would regard as insufficient.” ―A. Edward Newton, A Magnificent Farce And Other Diversions Of A Book Collector

Alumnae is the feminine plural form, used for groups of women.

“The stone seal is indelible, consecrated by the generations of alumnae who have passed by, understanding and believing. No outsider, no matter how cunning, can ever steal that belief away.” ―James Klise, The Art of Secrets

About the Forms

Why does this word have so many forms? Why do the plural forms end in I or E? Because they come from Latin, that’s why! In Latin, the verb alere, meaning “to feed or support,” contributed to the term alumnus. It referred to a foster son, a pupil, or a nursling. Of course, all those forms are difficult to remember. Before long, people began using “alum” (plural “alums”) as a shortened, unisex form. At first, “alum” was frowned upon as extremely informal, but some see it as an acceptable gender-neutral option. At the risk of being viewed as incorrect, others use alumni regardless of gender or number.

“A Google search for ‘he is an alumni’ gets nearly three million hits, ‘she is an alumni’ almost a million more. But I maintain they’re all wrong. Why? Because alumni is plural. You, an individual, can’t be an alumni any more than you can be a students.”―Charles Pettigrew, “Why You’ll Never Be an Alumni

“Nathan and Maxie’s trip to the altar is bound to get bumpy now that One Life to Live alum Bree Williamson (ex-Jess, Tess et al) has said oui to the role of General Hospital’s Claudette.” ―Matt Webb Mitovich, “General Hospital Casts One Life to Live Alum Bree Williamson as Nathan’s Ex

Congratulations, graduates! What shall we call them—alumnus for a male, alumna for a female, alumni for a group of males or mixed gender, and alumnae for a group of females? Or should we simplify the process by opting for the gender-neutral term “alum”? No matter which term you use to refer to former students or members of an exclusive group, you can be proud of their achievements!