Cultured Plurals

Plurals, singulars, and the de-Latinization of English

When baseball season starts in just a few short weeks, the New York Yankees will have a new “stadium.” The New York Mets will have one, too. That’s two new “stadia” for the city.

Is that the sound of someone choking? What’s that? The plural of “stadium” is “stadiums”?

Not in New York City, which used to have a Department of “Stadia.” The Parks Department is in charge of each “stadium” now, though city documents still refer to them as “stadia.” In fact, both “stadiums” and “stadia” show up frequently in news reports, with “stadiums” outnumbering “stadia” by about 5 to 1.

Both plurals are considered “standard” English, part of the de-Latinization of our language. When, for example, was the last time you heard someone use “memoranda” instead of “memorandums”? Same deal; both standard English. And few would argue that “an agenda” should be “an agendum”; the anti-Latin crowd has Anglicized “agenda” into a singular with a standard English plural, “agendas.”

Then there are the ones stuck in the middle. “Data” is now acceptable by many usage authorities as both a plural and a singular noun, though others, including the Associated Press Style Book, accept “data” as a singular only as a collective noun. But they’re way behind common usage, as explained by the New Oxford American Dictionary: “Data is now used as a singular where it means ‘information’: this data was prepared for the conference. It is used as a plural in technical contexts and when the collection of bits of information is stressed: all recent data on hurricanes are being compared.” But no usage authority in its right mind condones the occasionally heard “datums.”

You know what’s coming next, and it’s the one nearest and dearest to journalists’ hearts: “media.”

Things were so much easier when it was just “the press.” But now, with so many different “mediums,” there are two distinct camps on how to refer collectively to journalists and their outlets—the traditionalists, who want “media” to be used only as a plural, and the rest, who believe that “media” has achieved the status of “data,” and should be used as a singular collective noun at the least, if not as a pure singular.

Among those in the traditionalists’ camp is Roy Blount Jr., whose delightful new book, Alphabet Juice, takes on word myths, shibboleths, and the plain weird. Of “media” as a singular, he says: “to treat all these media collectively as a monolithic institution is to create a bugaboo or punching bag.” In the other camp is Bryan A. Garner, who says in his Modern American Usage that while use of “media” as a “mass noun” “still makes some squeamish, it must be accepted as standard.” That’s how the New Oxford American Dictionary feels as well, and the momentum is in their direction. (Hmm, “momenta”?)

Still, the AP Stylebook holds the line: “In the sense of mass communication, such as magazines, newspapers, the news services, radio, television and online, the word is plural: The news media are resisting attempts to limit their freedom.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is a bit chattier:

The term is often seen doing duty as a singular. But The Times, with a grammatically exacting readership, will keep it plural for now; the singular is medium. Ordinarily expand the term, at least to news media. In discussion of news and information outlets, the word is meaningless when standing alone; politicians and publicity people have stretched it to embrace soap operas, talk shows, encyclopedias, technical journals and everything in between. And since the things in between include The Times, the discomfort of the embrace should be evident.

You thought we would settle the argument here? Sorry. But if we asked a bunch of “mediums” to look into the future, chances are they would see a singular victory.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.