We sometimes use the borrowed word "telos" in English. It's obviously just a transliteration of τέλος (end, purpose, aim), which plays an important role especially in Aristotelian philosophy.

τέλος is a third declension noun, not second declension. In Greek, its plural is τέλη (telē), not τέλοι (teloi). This much is uncontroversial.

My question has to do with English usage of this Greek term. What is the proper plural of "telos" in English?

I've always assumed that "teloi" was just a solecism introduced by people who take it for a similar-sounding second declension word (e.g. "hoi polloi") but if that is so then many dictionaries seem to have fallen into the trap, e.g. dictionary.com and Collins. Is this a case, like "octopus," where a technically incorrect plural has been standardized by usage?

  • Recent dictionaries often fall into traps. – Cerberus May 2 '20 at 2:05

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the first known usage of telos was in 1904, which is fairly recent, relatively speaking. The word doesn't appear in any old dictionaries before that time. Most modern dictionaries list teloi as the plural form and sometimes teloses as an alternative. Wiktionary was the only one that I saw that also showed tele as another option. However, many have observed that tele simply looks wrong as an English word, so it's doubtful that it would ever be well-received.

To answer your question as to whether a technically incorrect plural has been standardized by usage, I would say that's probably a fair assessment. However, there really hasn't been much history behind it to standardize it well, and people still criticize the usage of it in spite of it appearing in dictionaries.

As was noted in a journal article, it might be a word which is best to avoid:

One practice that should not be encouraged is the use of teloi as the plural of telos, even if the Greek plural τέλη is not so easy to transliterate.

(from a review of Le Cynisme ancien et ses prolongements by M.-O. Goulet-Cazé and R. Goulet, p. 298)


Telea (τέλεα) is a valid Greek plural (not contracted), and it looks better in English: the -a plural is not unusual for Greek (and Latin) borrowings, and the uncontracted -e- is similar to the related word teleology (not contracted * telulogy).

An internet search reveals that this has already been used as a plural in English (a 2012 book, a 1986 Usenet discussion).

  • This is how I would instinctively pluralise it. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 16 '20 at 9:52

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