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. The 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.
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.
This 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 phenomenon, plural phenomena. The 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.
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?
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.
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.
Media, 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?
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 media. But if you’re talking about a spiritualist type of medium — much debunked by Houdini — the plural is mediums 😉
Other Languages have problems with rules, too
English 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?
If you have pet hates like
criteria, please do share.