Media Rare

Revisiting singular versus plural

Last week, a post at the Poynter Institute took a strong stand: “It’s time for copy editors to loosen the cardigan when it comes to ‘media,’” Andrew Beaujon wrote. He said he felt “like a tool writing ‘The media are.’”

No reason to feel like a tool. “Media” as a mass noun, taking a singular the way “furniture” does, has reached Stage 5 on the Language-Change Index, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage says, meaning it is completely proper English. Garner does note, however, that “that usage still makes some squeamish.”

But let’s not be so fast to set “rules” that can jettison a useful distinction.

Three years ago, we wrote that “media” was heading toward universal singular acceptance. But today, as then, The Associated Press Stylebook wants to keep it plural: “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.” Note the use of the word “news” before “media,” which somehow softens the plurality of “media.” And, just to show that Garner can wear cardigans when necessary, the grammar section that he wrote for The Chicago Manual of Style says: “In scientific contexts and in reference to mass communications, the plural of medium is media.”

In other words, those cardigan-wearing copy editors were told to put on that sweater. Don’t kill the messenger, please.

Even granting that most people use “media” wantonly, making “media” singular all the time creates a monolithic label, with all sorts of connotations. (Does anyone think the label “MSM” for “mainstream media” is a compliment?)

So instead of following a “rule,” let’s use the same guidelines that govern whether “couple” is a singular or a plural: If the two members of the couple are acting as one, use a singular: “The couple is planning a vacation to the Bahamas.” If the two members are acting separately, make them plural: “The couple disagree whether to go by boat or plane.”

Using that guideline (and a brain), “media” would be singular when speaking of news organizations as a single unit: “The media plans to file a FOIA request.” But when there needs to be a distinction among the members of the media, make it plural: “The media are unclear about whether to request some or all of the documents.”

Even copy editors in cardigans should know enough to take it off when the heat is on, without worrying about catching a linguistic chill.

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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. Tags: , , , , ,