Criteria for Plural Phenomenon : Pedantique-Ryter rants

The other week, when I was reading the news online — I do occasionally use the internet, in case you were wondering — I came across an advert from a major UK bank. It may be one of the largest in the world, but it certainly is not the most educated. crime scene tapeThe HSBC advert (for it was they!) said, roughly:

The criteria for our offer is X…

Not an exact quote, but the subject of the sentence was the word “criteria” and the verb was definitely “is”.  And I decided, on the spot, that I could never, ever bank with HSBC.

oops! key on keyboardEven the authors in the Libertà hive know better.
I mentioned it to dear Sophie on the telephone and I could hear her teeth grinding.
Quite right, too.

Sophie knew better. Why didn’t #hsbc ?

Criteria? Singular or Plural?

TIP #1 The word criteria is a plural. The singular form is criterion.   ALWAYS.
Like many singular words ending −on, criterion is derived from Greek and the plural is formed by changing −on to −a.

4 smiley faces and 1 misery faceThis rule is — for the time being, at least — still accepted, though it may change if enough people, like #hsbc, continue to misuse it. The New Oxford Dictionary of English notes it is a common mistake to use criteria as if it were a singular, quoting the teeth-grinding example: “a further criteria needs to be considered.”
Fowler’s Modern English Usage calls it “lamentable”. So do I.

The same difficulty arises with phenomenonplural phenomenaThe Oxford dictionary notes that it is a mistake to use phenomena as if it were a singular form, quoting the example: “this is a strange phenomena.” Pedants may be fighting a losing battle there, however, given that the full OED quotes examples of the mistake from as early as 1576.

key to open lock to lightSo, is there a simple rule that singular words ending −on have a plural ending −a?
Like automaton and automata?

Sorry. No.

Some words of Greek origin don’t follow that “rule”. The plural of skeleton is not skeleta, is it? The same goes for lexicon, electron, pylon, demon, siphon and quite a lot of others. As with many other “rules” of English language, there are so many exceptions that the rule is pretty worthless for anyone trying to learn the language.

Data? Bacteria? Media? Singular or Plural?

graphic of mazeEnglish contains many words derived from Latin where the singular form ends −um. The Latin plural ends in −a, but in English, only some of these words follow that rule.

No surprise there.

Many such words make their plural by adding the normal English −s. We use albums, asylums, forums, museums, premiums and so on.

data scatterOther words from Latin do make the plural by using −a. We use addendabacteria, data, minima.

Many of these words are scientific terms or learned words like scholia (marginal notes by a scholiast, in case you’re interested). As a result, they’re often misused in everyday speech.

How often have you heard bacteria used as a singular? How about: “the bacteria causing salmonella is killed by thorough cooking”? It’s incorrect, but very common.

TIP #2 The word bacteria is plural. ALWAYS. The singular form is bacterium.

Data, though strictly the plural of datum, is rarely used as a plural in everyday speech. (Scientists, though, are more precise in their usage.) Oxford states that data has essentially become a mass noun, like information, and is therefore treated as a singular. “The data was collected” is now accepted English.

hammer flattens paper mistakeMedia, again strictly the plural of medium, is used as a collective noun in the sense of press, radio and television. Oxford states that media can therefore take either a singular or plural verb in standard English. Even as a practising pedant, I no longer fight that one.

However, Oxford notes — abomination alert! — that a plural form medias is increasingly being used.

TIP #3 Fowler’s advice is “NEVER use a media or the medias.”
I wholeheartedly agree. Whatever next? Bacterias?

Aquaria or Aquariums? Where are the Rules?

key and book, key to writing correctlyJust to complicate matters, there are also Latin-derived words where both plurals are used. What about referendums and referenda?
What’s the plural of aquarium or consortium or gymnasium?

Rules don’t help much, do they?

Since I can’t give you a fail-safe rule, I offer you, instead, one lovely example of the idiosyncrasies of English — the plural of medium (artistic materials, for example) is generally mediaBut if you’re talking about a spiritualist type of medium — much debunked by Houdini — the plural is mediums 😉poster of Houdini on stage

Other Languages have problems with rules, too

1835 Academie Francaise dictionaryEnglish is a language that is constantly developing and, unlike French, English does not have an Académie to lay down the law. Dictionary editors are often at pains to point out that they do not prescribe what language should be; their role is to record English as it is used, including recent developments.

Would English be “better” if we had an Académie, on the French model? I doubt it. And in any case, it is much too late to try to establish one now.

I have to be fair here. The Académie Française does lay down the language rules in France, but many French speakers ignore its strictures. Is it, for example, Madame le Maire, or Madame la Maire? The Académie insists the former is correct; Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris since 2014, uses the latter. I wonder which one is winning?

Dedicating Thank You

Is this Dame Isadora under that huge hat?


If you have pet hates like
criteria, please do share.

I. Pedantique-Ryter


15 thoughts on “Criteria for Plural Phenomenon : Pedantique-Ryter rants

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Extremely confusing, Dame Isadora. I may well be guilty of some of these solecisms for which I abjectly apologise. Memory fails but I shall keep a sharper eye on my outpourings as of now.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Apology accepted, Elizabeth. In any case, I doubt you are guilty of such things.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Afraid so, Natalie. Indeed, I saw it in a so-called quality newspaper just the other day. I shall not name the organ, to spare its blushes.

  2. lesley2cats

    My offspring are always pulling me up when I point out these mistakes. Their contention is that English is constantly changing, and of course you only have to try and read some of the admittedly beautiful documents of the past to realise how true that is. However, teeth grinding frequently ensues in this house, particularly when watching the television. Thank you, Dame Isadora.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Your offspring have a point. Up to a point, Lesley 😉 For example, as I said in my post, the pass on data as a plural has been sold. But I do draw the line at criteria as a singular word.

  3. Sophie

    It’s interesting, isn’t it? If you’re a word enthusiast like me, something like ‘the media is” really hurts, like that terrible noise you used to get when a teacher scraped their finger on a blackboard. Though I would not have expected such negligence (for that is what it is) from a company of the size, history and distinction of HSBC. Very sad.

    But there are more and more words in use all the time and fewer and fewer people who love them and use them with tender care.

    And don’t get me started on Autocorrect…

    So we’re doomed. We’re all DOOMED.

      1. Dame Isadora Post author

        I agree with you, and with Sophie, on this, Elizabeth. I must say that I work with Autocorrect turned off. OTOH, I do read through emails etc before I send them and I do run a spellcheck on documents before I send or print them. Not that the spellcheck function is always correct, of course. But at least it does learn new words or different spellings if you tell it to.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      I do so agree about Autocorrect, Sophie dear. The harbinger of DOOM as one might say?

  4. Elizabeth Rolls

    I have been publicly reviled as a pedant for pulling some poor sod up over criterion vs criteria. Admittedly I was serving behind the bar of our local soccer club where pedantry is not much in demand, but it’s the principle of the thing. However I have certainly been guilty of using bacteria when I should have used bacterium.
    I must admit that I find auto-correct’s sheer prissiness highly amusing. I mean, you’d think after all the times I’ve corrected it the wretched thing would have worked out that it’s pretty rare for me to want to type “duck”.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      I’m sure you can now be relied upon to use bacteria/bacterium correctly, Elizabeth. As for “duck”, I imagine you need no advice from me.

  5. Dame Isadora Post author

    In today’s Times (11 March 2020), I read a superior and rather snooty sketch about the Civil Service by @thequentinletts who wrote the following:

    “Sir Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary, attended a Commons select committee accompanied for the last time by his Ginger Rogers, his seraphim, by the deft pen-twiddler who long provided the Pollux to his Castor: Sir John Manzoni.”

    If the Times still claims to be the newspaper of record, it should surely know that seraphim is the plural of seraph? Or are Hebrew plurals too difficult for the poor little newspaper?

    DOOMED indeed.

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