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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 of plurality.

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.

Bacteria 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.

Criteria 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.”

Data 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.”

Media 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.

Phenomena 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.

Sierra 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!

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at 5:05 pm


Media Watch 2

Recent cringe-inducers from the print media …

An upscale music venue ran ads for “An Evening With Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr.” The second line said, “Formally of the 5th Dimension.” It was only after several weeks that someone caught the silly gaffe and sheepishly changed “Formally” to “Formerly.”

From an article about a musician: “He hardly fit the paradigm of an insecure singer/songwriter.” Why not “singer-songwriter,” with a hyphen, instead? In recent years the slash has become all the rage, but many authorities dismiss it as a substandard option—“a mark that doesn’t appear much in first-rate writing,” says Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage. “Use it as a last resort.”

A columnist wrote, “It is I who is the bamboozled one.” At least he didn’t write “It is me.” But written correctly, the sentence would say, “It is I who am the bamboozled one.” In technical terms, the relative pronoun who agrees with its antecedent (“I”) in both number and person. If who is representing I, it must take am, the same verb that I takes.

A curious sentence about a San Francisco neighborhood: “They can kiss goodbye to Alamo Square.” No, they can say goodbye to Alamo Square. Or they can kiss Alamo Square goodbye. They could even give the beloved locale a kiss goodbye. But “can kiss goodbye to”?! Maybe the copyeditor was on vacation.

A world-famous writer of steamy novels fired a broadside at critics of her larger-than-lifestyle: “Reading the latest vitriolic article about the hedge around my house, my reaction was enormous sadness.” The sentence falls apart under close analysis: it says her “reaction” can read articles. A best-selling author who writes danglers? Say it isn’t so. She should have either replaced “Reading” with “When I read” or changed the second part to “I reacted with enormous sadness.”

Even seasoned professionals are liable to make loopy mistakes when they don’t proofread.

 

Pop Quiz
The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors.
1. “If he believes that canard, he’s grieviously mistaken.”
2. “It depends on Hillary Clinton or whomever gets the nomination.”
3. “I want to see if I have this correctly.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1. “If he believes that canard, he’s grievously mistaken.”
2. “It depends on Hillary Clinton or whoever gets the nomination.”
3. “I want to see if I have this correct.”

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Posted on Tuesday, February 11, 2014, at 5:41 pm


Sic for Sick Sentences

We have noticed a dismal new trend: not capitalizing words that need it. Flouting the rules of capitalization is yet another indignity visited upon our beleaguered language by self-appointed visionaries who seem hellbent on transforming standard English, even though many of them can barely read, write, or speak it.

From a recent magazine article: “ ‘i am just now noticing how long his arms are. maybe happy people have long arms,’ he emailed me.”

The writer of this piece chose not to point out that his correspondent should have capitalized “i” and “maybe.” It highlights an interesting problem: how to alert the reader when a direct quotation is in flawed English.

This is what the bracketed editor’s mark [sic] was invented for. The [sic] mark is found only in direct quotations, always enclosed in brackets. In formal writing, an author or editor inserts [sic] directly after a word or sentence to notify readers that something is off or incorrect but is reproduced exactly as it originally appeared (sic means “thus” in Latin). In the passage at hand, the “i” would be easy to deal with: “i [sic] am just now noticing …”

The “maybe” is more problematic. The use of [sic] has its practical limits. You’d never see “m[sic]aybe happy people have long arms.” And if the author wrote “maybe [sic] happy people have long arms,” the [sic] would be so far from the offending m that a reader might miss the point and think the entire word maybe was somehow unacceptable. Nonetheless, this is the only realistic option where [sic] is concerned.

By not confirming who was responsible for the lowercase i and m, the writer ran the risk that his readers would blame him for the e-mailer’s lapses. Evidently, this was a risk he was willing to take.

 

Pop Quiz

These sentences demonstrate bad habits that one sees frequently nowadays. Can you cure what ails them?

1. The real problem in such cases are the criminals.

2. Chocolate is our childrens’ favorite desert.

3. She’s not here- she left an hour ago.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The real problem in such cases is the criminals. (It’s not pretty, but it’s correct.)

2. Chocolate is our children’s favorite dessert.

3. She’s not here—she left an hour ago. (Don’t use a hyphen to do a long dash’s work. Note: Some writers space long dashes on both sides, others (as here) use no spaces. Hyphens are never preceded or followed by a space.)

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Posted on Monday, January 27, 2014, at 2:01 pm


The Future of English?

The New York Times has called the author Jess Walter “ridiculously talented.” “His sentences nearly sing,” says the Los Angeles Review of Books. “One of my favorite young American writers,” says fellow novelist Nick Hornby.

We agree with the critics. Walter’s 2012 best-seller Beautiful Ruins is a masterpiece. But today we’ll do a different kind of book review.

Our job at GrammarBook.com is to preserve and promote standard English. This sometimes puts us at cross-purposes with Walter, who chooses to speak to his readers in an easy, accessible voice—the people’s English, not the scholars’ English. If his writing is where the language is headed, we traditionalists must accept that we are fighting numerous losing battles.

In Walter’s short story We Live in Water one finds this line: “The resort was comprised of three newer buildings.” Word nerds will question why he didn’t use composed instead of comprised. In 1926, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler hissed, “This lamentably common use of comprise as a synonym of compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.” Seventy-six years later, in 2002, Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words was no less emphatic: “Comprised of is a common expression, but it is always wrong.”

So it seems clear that Walter used the phrase because he either did not know or did not care that “the experts” say it’s wrong. By writing “comprised of,” Walter is legitimizing this “common expression” over the adamant objections of a dwindling cadre of fuddy-duddies.

From Walter’s 2003 novel Land of the Blind: “I don’t know who liked this new world less, him or Mr. Leggett.” Walter, who could have used the correct he in this sentence without sounding stilted or affected, opted instead for the colloquial him. Apparently, neither he nor his target audience loses any sleep over such erudite technicalities.

In another short story, The New Frontier, the author writes, “He convinced her to model.” But technically, he persuaded her to model. “Convince may be followed by an of phrase or a that clause, but not by a to infinitive,” counsels Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer (1983). That rule is upheld to this day by the Associated Press Stylebook: “You may [only] be convinced that something or of something.” Walter isn’t buying. He’s trusting his own ear, as writers will do. The fine distinction between convince and persuade, he is saying, has become a quaint bit of trivia.

He introduces sentences with danglers. He repeatedly writes “different than” rather than “different from.” He says “snuck” even though sneaked is still considered the correct option. At least once, he uses strata—the plural of stratum—as a singular. He writes “close proximity,” long dismissed by sticklers as a windy redundancy.

Walter is too busy spinning his wondrous tales to be distracted by such minutiae—his instincts tell him: Why bother?

Why, indeed? That question gives all language watchdogs nightmares.

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Posted on Wednesday, January 22, 2014, at 10:57 am


Sabotage in Broad Daylight?

If you like being punched in the gut, type the word literally into Google, everyone’s favorite Internet search engine. Here is what you’ll find:

  1. In a literal manner or sense; exactly: “the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the traffic circle”.
  2. Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.

If you’re like most sticklers, definition 2 just ruined your day. When literally can mean “not literally true,” aren’t we living an Orwellian nightmare?

Since when is Google qualified to redefine words? A closer look reveals that Google’s self-appointed experts don’t even know the basics of capitalization or punctuation. For instance, why no capital T for “the driver…”?

Also, keep in mind that in America, periods never go outside quotation marks, and Google is an American company. What contortions would a Google spokesperson have to go through to defend the period placement at the end of definition 1?

Look at the wording of definition 2: “Used to acknowledge…” Does this strike you as a bit coy? Note the passive voice, which allows Google to duck the key question: “Used” by whom? Well, you hear it (ab)used a lot by education-challenged 18- to 49-year-olds who clearly have not bothered to learn what the word means. That’s why they say things like, “She literally threw me under the bus” and “I’m literally freezing to death.”

This is the very demographic that produced Google’s founders, and most of its employees. These literally-torturers are the people who make the company profitable. So Google “gives back” by legitimizing its best customers’ sabotage of this powerful word.

We language watchdogs may not like it, but for Google, showing solidarity with its contemporaries—even to the point of endorsing their ignorance—is a savvy business decision.

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Posted on Saturday, August 24, 2013, at 3:39 pm