“Alumnus”, “Alumni”, “Alumna”, “Alumnae”: What's the Difference?

A classic scene in the Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian, asks the question: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” While the Romans are long gone, their influence remains strong in the English language with its many Latin loanwords, including alumnus.

The Romans originally used the word alumnus to mean “foster child”. It eventually evolved to also mean “pupil”.

In today’s English, we use “alumnus” to mean a graduate of an educational institution or program. You might also hear someone referred to as an “alumnus” of a company or organization that they worked for.

Nouns borrowed from Latin can cause confusion as they behave differently from other English words, particularly when changing from singular to plural (alumnus vs. alumni) or from masculine to feminine (alumnus vs. alumna).

So let’s set the record straight.

What does ‘alumnus’ mean?

An alumnus is one male graduate. For example: Arnold Schwarzenegger is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin.

Note that over the years, the definition of alumnus has expanded to also include a former member of any structured organization (a company, an association, etc.).

What does ‘alumni’ mean?

Alumni is the plural form of alumnus, so you’d use it when referring to more than one graduate.

The only time you wouldn’t use alumni is if all the graduates are female. That’s right, if there’s a group of 1,000 female grads and one male, you’d still use alumni. Unfortunately, the Romans were not familiar with modern ideas about gender-inclusive language. In case of any doubt, consider referring to both alumni and alumnae (the female, plural form).

For example:

  • Colin, Samuel and Gerald are all alumni of the same program.

  • We look forward to welcoming all alumni and alumnae of the class of 2000.

What does ‘alumna’ mean?

An alumna is one female graduate. For example: Natalie Portman is an alumna of Harvard University.

What does ‘alumnae’ mean?

Alumnae is the plural form of alumna, so you’d use it when referring to more than one female graduate. It’s a very common word in the context of all-female colleges such as Barnard, who proudly refer to their “alumnae stories”.

When to use ‘alum’?

Alum (alums in plural) is a shortened version of alumnus or alumna. It developed in modern times as an informal way to refer to a graduate, and also to save people having to keep track of the different Latin endings. It’s more likely to be used in conversation.

For example: You studied at the University of Singapore? What a coincidence, I’m an alum also!

As the world becomes more and more conscious of different identities, using the word alum also avoids having to define graduates by their gender. Interestingly, Latin has a built-in neuter ending for nouns which could also solve this problem, but I don’t see alumnum catching on any time soon.

How to write ‘alumnus’, 'alumni', 'alumna', 'alumnae'

Given that these words come from Latin, some style guides recommend italicizing them when typing. They should not be capitalized, unless they are the first word of a sentence, or form part of an official name, for example the P&G Alumni Network.

In a nutshell

Now you should be able to switch smoothly between alumnus, alumni, alumna, alumnae and even alum, depending on the situation.

But take care: good grammar is important, but in situations where many people don’t know the rules, using the correct forms may make your writing difficult to understand, or even seem pretentious. If in doubt, consider other options such as graduate or former employee. With any text, understanding your audience is the key to good communication.

Samuel Green, Marketing Writer at Wix

Samuel is thrilled that his high school Latin has finally been of use. He’s an alumnus of Trinity College, Cambridge.