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Confusing Singular & Plural Forms: Phenomenon/Phenomena, Medium/Media

August 15, 2013

Singular or plural…which is which?

English plurals are usually easy for students to form—just add ‑s to the end of the singular word. But, like almost all of the rules in English grammar, there are exceptions. Often these exceptions come from words that are borrowed from other languages such as Greek or Latin. The head writer at ESL Library recently asked me about phenomenon and phenomena, and I was surprised that there was more to it than simply singular vs. plural. I thought I’d investigate medium and media while I was at it, too, since media is a word frequently used these days.

Phenomenon Vs. Phenomena

Borrowed from Greek, the English word phenomenon is the most common singular form and phenomena is the most common plural form. In fact, both the Oxford Canadian Dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style list only these two entries.

However, both Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage go into greater detail on the usage and history of the word. They list the possible plural forms as phenomena (the much more common form) when the meaning is "an observable fact or event" but phenomenons when the meaning is "an exceptional, unusual, or abnormal person, things, or occurrence."

Did you know that phenomena has been in use as a singular form, primarily in speech, since 1576? How about phenomenas as a plural form since 1635? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage suggests that the singular phenomena is no more irregular than the words "agenda" and "stamina," which are clearly accepted as singular. However, they don’t recommend using phenomena as a singular form until it becomes much more common in speech and print, if it ever does. Let’s keep the confusion to a minimum!

My Conclusion

Majority rules: Use phenomenon for the singular and phenomena for the plural, at least for now!

Medium Vs. Media

Borrowed from Latin, the English words medium and media are tricky because they have more than one meaning. In most meanings outside of "mass media," the singular form is medium and the plural is media. But our students are likely primarily concerned with the "mass media" (TV, radio, social media, etc.) meaning. What are the forms for this case? Here’s where there is a bit of disagreement, which mostly stems from whether you look at media as a plural count noun (that takes a plural verb form) or a non-count noun (that takes a singular verb form).

  • The Oxford Canadian Dictionary says that media can be treated as singular or plural (i.e., the media is…, the media are…).
  • The Chicago Manual of Style says that media is a plural form (i.e., the media are…).
  • Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary says that media is singular or plural in construction (i.e., the media is…, the media are…).
  • Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage goes into greater detail, saying that the non-count use (i.e., singular verb) of media seems to be on the rise, similar to the non-count use of the word data. However, they also note that, for all meanings, media as a plural count noun or non-count noun with a plural verb is still far more common than media as a singular count noun or non-count noun with a singular verb. Who knew?

And, as a side note, the plural of medium as in "spiritual" (such as a fortune teller) is mediums!

My Conclusion

Well, media has me more confused now than before I looked into it! Personally, I’ve mostly heard and used media as a non-count noun with a singular verb, and will continue to do so (as in "The media is having a field day with this latest scandal.").

Sources

  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, section 5.220
  • Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English
  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition
  • Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage
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Comments (6)

Patty (Guest)

Thank you For such a clear, friendly, and detailed explanation of the plural of medium and phenomenon!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

My pleasure, Patty! Thanks for your comment.

ali (Guest)

thank you for this user friendly explanation

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome, Ali!

Jing (Guest)

thank you very much for the explain, could you give us a few more examples about similar tricky words?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Jing,

In this post (https://blog.ellii.com/2018/02/28/grammar-day-roundup-2018/) scroll down to the Commonly Confused Words section for many other related posts. Hope they're helpful!

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