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Be Careful with the -a Team
The first letter of the alphabet is also a common English word that is virtually synonymous with one. As a word, a is the very antithesis
This might help explain why there’s so much confusion about a group of words that I call “the -a team.” Here they are: bacteria, criteria, data, media, phenomena, Sierra. As you can see, all end in the letter a, which just sounds
so darned singular that these words continue to confound even careful writers and speakers. Because the fact is, they’re all plural.
Staphylococcus is a virulent form of bacteria. No problem there, but Staphylococcus is a virulent bacteria, well, now we have a problem. The singular is bacterium. So a sentence like The bacteria in the cut was infecting it is flawed—the bacteria were infecting it.
It’s the plural of criterion, a standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. The sentence Honesty is our chief criteria is
ungrammatical; there can’t be only one criteria. Make it Honesty is our chief criterion or Honesty is one of our chief criteria.
Your criteria are your standards, plural.
Those who know that criteria is plural aren’t out of the woods yet either: many believe the singular is “criterium.” And there are some who will
reveal to you their “criterias.”
John B. Bremner, in Words on Words, states unequivocally, “The word is plural.” This one is thorny, because the singular, datum, is
virtually nonexistent in English. Many people see data as a synonym for information, and to them, These data are very interesting sounds downright bizarre. Maybe, but it’s also correct. English scholar Theodore M. Bernstein says, “Some
respected and learned writers have used data as a singular. But a great many more have not.”
Among the language’s most abused words is media, a plural noun; medium is the singular. A medium is a system of mass
communication: The medium of television is a prominent component of the mass media.
Every day we hear and read statements like The media is irresponsible or The media has a hidden agenda. In those sentences, media should be followed by are and have.
There are some who prefer and defend the media is and the media has. To them, the various means of mass communication—newspapers, radio,
TV, magazines, blogs, etc.—make up one “media.”
But writers should insist on the media are. It’s important that people think of the media as many voices, opinions, and perspectives
rather than one monolithic entity.
This troublemaker baffles even articulate speakers. Phenomena is plural; phenomenon is singular.
“Management is a universal phenomenon,” declares a business website. But a commentator on national television had it exactly backward. He
spoke of “the phenomena of climate change” and later used phenomenon as a plural. Others say “phenomenas” when they mean phenomena.
Avoid “Sierras” when the topic is the vast California mountain range. An online camping guide says, “Translating from Spanish, sierra is plural in
itself.” The Sierra Nevada Alliance, a conservation organization, elaborates: “The Sierra Nevada is a single, distinct unit, both geographically and
topographically, and is well described by una sierra nevada. Strictly speaking, therefore, we should never pluralize the name—such as Sierras, or
Sierra Nevadas, or even High Sierras …”
“Strictly speaking,” you say? What a concept!
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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Following are more selections from a perverse set of rules that are guilty of the very mistakes they seek to prevent. English teachers, students, scientists, and writers have been circulating these self-contradictory rules for more than a century.
Rules for Writing Good: Writing Tips
1. By observing the distinctions between adjectives and adverbs, you will treat your readers real good.
2. Parallel structure will help you in writing more effective sentences and to express yourself more gracefully.
3. In my own personal opinion at this point in time, I think that authors, when they are writing, should not get into the habit of making use of too many unnecessary words that they don't really need.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.