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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


The Case of the Missing Hyphen, Part 2

We thank all of you who took the time to respond to the question we posed two weeks ago: Should it be e-mail or email? There were eloquent arguments for both sides, but email won decisively. “Time to join the 21st century,” wrote one gentleman, who added, “and I’m 61 years old.”

Many of you chose email for pragmatic reasons, like this respondent: “In all practicality, email will win. On my smartphone, anyone typing the word e-mail has to shift to a second, then a third screen to complete the word.”

What this amounts to, said another reader, is that “texting is creating a whole new language.” We find ourselves rattled by that thought.

If, as one of you wrote, “The only quick punctuation mark I have on my smartphone is the period,” then this helps explain the indifference to hyphens, commas, apostrophes—and capital letters after periods—that we nitpickers are noting with ever-increasing dismay. Why should advances in technology have to come at the expense of the English language?

Other readers took the long view. “When the use of a particular prefix with a particular word is new, the hyphen is a useful link,” wrote one. “Once people become used to the new combination, the hyphen will be dropped.” History bears out this astute observation. Let’s look at some other familiar words that have followed the same pattern.

Goodbye: In 1968, Random House’s American College Dictionary demanded a hyphen, and preferred good-by to good-bye. The 1980 American Heritage dictionary agreed. But by 2006, American Heritage preferred goodbye, although it also listed the hyphenated choices.

Passerby: It started out as passer-by. The Associated Press Stylebook still recommends the hyphen, but that probably won’t last. The American Heritage dictionary already gave passerby top billing eight years ago.

Fundraiser: After years of recommending fund-raiser, the Associated Press’s manual dropped the hyphen seven years or so ago.

Baseball: The one-word form we have today did not prevail until less than 100 years ago. It was base ball in the early nineteenth century and base-ball in the early twentieth century.

Grass-roots (adjective): The American Heritage dictionary, Webster’s New World (fourth edition), and the Associated Press all agree on the hyphen, but grassroots is coming on strong.

So who are we to flout the inevitable? From now on, we’ll grit our teeth and write email.

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Posted on Monday, March 17, 2014, at 8:08 pm


Christmas ’Log Review

Every year, for six weeks or so, I get a taste of what it’s like to be a superstar.

From late October to early December, I am accosted daily by an aggressive mob of stalkers who know where I live. Their urgent need for my attention seems to be their only reason for being. No, they’re not paparazzi or obsessed fans. I’m talking about Christmas catalogs. Every day brings a new swarm—they burst out of my mailbox, entreating me to behold them in all their holiday finery.

Well, even a six-week celebrity has an obligation to his public. I checked out every last one. None was turned away. Here, then, is my Christmas catalog review.

For big spenders there is the stately Gump’s catalog, so tasteful you want to take a nap; or Neiman Marcus, with its sullen, stubbly, pasty pretty boys modeling $390 sneakers; or the gaudy Hammacher Schlemmer, for taste-challenged high-rollers: I’ve got to have that animatronic singing and talking Elvis, or more accurately, Elvis’ head and shoulders—the King has been mutilated, I guess, to spare the embarrassment of pelvic thrusts in mixed company. How about spoiling your child rotten with Hammacher’s “6½-foot teddy bear” for $500. If that’s too sissified, the NFL Shop will warp the values of your little tough guy with a personalized 12-minute CD of a football game in which the announcer says the kid’s name 30 times. It’s never too early to learn that it’s all about you.

Frontgate offers a machine that enriches your oxygen as it plays music. An up-and-comer called X-treme Geek has caffeinated soap, a talking toilet-tissue holder, and, for the guy whose girlfriend doesn’t hate him enough already, a Wild West revolver-shaped TV remote, which makes a loud gunshot as it changes channels. It comes with a “super-cool official-looking sheriff’s badge.”

The Signals company tempts pet lovers with the “I kiss my dog on the lips” T-shirt, but I have my eye on the coat rack with three duck tails for hangers. Not to be outdone, What on Earth offers a “cat butt magnet set,” to go with its flatulent toy puppy (“squeeze his belly”) and a Bill Clinton figurine with a corkscrew coming out of his pants.

Wolferman’s offers 44 pages of … muffins?! Fahrney’s offers 56 pages of … pens!? Don’t miss the Marlene Dietrich model (“sensuous curves in all the right places”), a bargain at $880, or the $3,000 “pen of the year” (who voted?).

From high-end catalogs on down, the one constant is the writing, which is excellent across the board. (Is this what good writers have to do to eat these days?) Oh, some are better than others. Fahrney’s thinks the plural of entry is “entrys”—a store devoted to writing can’t make such a dumb mistake. National Geographic’s otherwise classy mailer misfires with the awkward “spiders are one of the creepiest crawlers out there.” Spiders, plural, are “one”? Why not “a spider is”? Sahalie’s writes “completely waterproof.” How is that different from just “waterproof”? Orvis Men’s Clothing says, “Crafted in New England, you’ll appreciate the comfort.” This sentence, taken literally, means “you” were crafted in New England. Herrington’s high-spirited but sloppy catalog spells minuscule “miniscule.” Herrington is also one of many catalogs that can’t get the subject to agree with the verb: “Every one of our vintage Ferraris are parked …” No, every one is parked. Subject-verb agreement is a big problem nowadays, and reflects the carelessness and short attention spans this era will be remembered for.

When you read as many of these things as I did, you come to realize that catalogs have their own language, rules, and customs. Numbers are almost never spelled out, not even leading off a sentence. That’s against all civilized rules of writing, but merchants want to be direct, not correct. They’re targeting our eyes, not our brains. Capitals are thrown around extravagantly because anything capitalized looks Important and Impressive. Hyphens are avoided wherever possible because advertisers will always choose two simple words with a clean space between them over one long, confusing word with an ungainly bar right in the middle.

Many companies sell jewelry made with “Swarovski crystals,” a fancy term for rhinestones, which is in turn a euphemism for phony gemstones. And countless catalogs feature “nutcrackers,” so called because they were inspired by the popular Tchaikovsky Christmastime ballet. The 21st-century versions look to be useless, charmless statuettes, tackier than tin soldiers. You can get them wearing uniforms of your favorite pro sports team or branch of the military. Despite the name, I doubt they could even crack a moldy peanut. Their heads don’t even bobble.

Finally, see if you can figure out what this list of words culled from several catalogs refers to: chianti, chili, dirt, dragonfly, dusk, espresso, grasshopper, mineral, nutmeg, ocean, persimmon, raisin, root beer, sesame, spa, sweet pea, sweet potato, toast.

You might as well give up, because you’ll never guess. They’re … colors?! “Oh, sweetheart, you look fabulous in that root beer muumuu!” “Thank you, darling, and that dragonfly-and-dirt sweater goes so well with your spa-and-dusk striped tie and those toast trousers.”

—Tom Stern

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Posted on Thursday, December 12, 2013, at 7:12 pm


Media Watch

Several weeks ago, a Vatican-endorsed medal honoring Pope Francis had to be recalled because Jesus was spelled “Lesus.” Just last week, a political placard at a Washington, D.C., press conference spelled filibuster “fillibuster” and against “againts.” In light of these disgraces, it seems the right time to reopen our Media Malfeasance file…

• “They have arrested two suspects, neither of whom are British.” This decades-old problem is only getting worse. To journalists it may concern: The pronoun neither, like either and each, is always singular. Make it “neither of whom is British.”

• “Prop. 32 is an initiative to curb union’s influence.” Ah, apostrophes. Note that one could also say “to curb the influence of unions”—that’s unions, plural. Plural nouns ending in s show possession with the apostrophe after the s, not before. So make it “curb unions’ influence.”

• “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” Looks all right, you say? The problem is the unnecessary question mark. “Guess” is an imperative—a direct order, not the first word in a question.

• “Rebecca Solnit’s book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” Remove the commas. This is slipshod editing. With the commas, the sentence means that Unfathomable City is the only book Solnit has ever written. In fact, she has written over a dozen.

The rule is that commas set off nonessential information. If the author has written only one book, its title is not essential to the sentence: “Rebecca Solnit’s [only] book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” But since she has written several, we must be told which book directly—no commas. Similarly, The actor, Robert De Niro, was there is incorrect with commas. But The president of the United States, Barack Obama, was there is correct.

As writers’ skills decline, so do readers’ standards. The acerbic avant-garde musician Frank Zappa (1940-1993) once described a rock ’n’ roll magazine as “written by people who can’t write for people who can’t read.” Were he alive today, Zappa might not limit his assessment to rock-music journalism.

 

Pop Quiz

See if you can spot the flaws in these actual quotations from the media.

1. “…shot himself with a riffle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crisis?”

3. “It does so many other things that drives up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking badly.”

5. “Dow closes at new record high.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “…shot himself with a rifle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crises?”

3. “It does so many other things that drive up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking bad.”

5. “Dow closes at record high.” (“new record” is a redundancy)

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Posted on Monday, November 25, 2013, at 1:36 pm


Words Can Be Bullies

Words that start with the letter h don’t always act like it.

Consider “herb,” when it means “an aromatic plant used for seasoning in cooking.” Americans dump the h, whereas many Brits pronounce it. So we say “an ’erb,” but an Englishman says “a herb.”

A different sort of h-confusion happens when self-important speakers and writers say “an historic occasion” or “an heroic soldier.” Ever notice that “an” only precedes a few highfalutin h-words like “historic(al),” “hypothetical,” “hallucinogenic”? And they tend to have three or more syllables: “An heroic soldier” is also “a hero.”

About 20 years ago, Time magazine ran a front-cover headline beginning, “A Historic…” and misguided word nerds raised a furor, insisting Time should have said “An Historic”—but the magazine never budged, stating flatly that “an historic” is wrong.

In everyday conversation, would you describe a wailing brat as “an hysterical child”? I sincerely doubt it. But what makes “hysterical” so different from “historical”?

A Google check yields tips from various websites, which only reinforce common sense: “You should use ‘an’ before a word beginning with an ‘H’ only if the ‘H’ is not pronounced” (from the website wsu.edu/~brians/errors/anhistoric.html).

Or this: “you use an before vowel sounds…Following this rule, we would say ‘a historic,’ not ‘an historic’ ” (betterwritingskills.com).

Or this one, which ought to seal the deal: “I’d love to hear a reasonable argument, based on logic and not convention, in support of ‘an historic’…given the prevalence of such similar constructions as ‘a hotel downtown’ and ‘a high bar’ and ‘a hitman killed my dog’ ” (ask.metafilter.com).

Pomposity often leads to tortured language. I remember lawyer-turned-sportscaster Howard Cosell, rest his troubled soul, and the way he regularly subjected professional athletes to his cruel and unusual polysyllabic punishment. In general, jocks are spoiled, semi-educated boors, and they know it, so the tug-of-war between them and Cosell was great theater.

At its most sublime, it involved boxing champion Muhammad Ali. He and Howard made a great team, and there was genuine love and trust there. Whatever his faults, Cosell, perhaps at the risk of his own career, had taken up for the draft-evading Ali when the champ was something of a national pariah. (YouTube.com has many wonderful sequences of these two through the years.)

Although there was a good Cosell, all too often we got Bad Howard, neurotically insecure, the one who knew he was kept at arm’s length by these great physical geniuses—and resented it. He knew they mocked him, not caring that Cosell had more knowledge of more subjects than all of them put together. So he would sometimes do perverse things, like the time he bullied a poor rookie football player from some Deep South ghetto. Bad Howard said something like: “So, my young friend, in your estimation, did the immensity of the task assigned you, juxtaposed with the metaphysical certainty of your callow demeanor, effectuate a lessened or heightened capacity on your part?”

I’m not kidding. That’s pretty close to what Howard said. As the kid listened, his eyes widened with terror and confusion, as if he were being swarmed by a raging horde of ruthless linebackers. I don’t recall his answer.

Tom Stern

 

Pop Quiz
As we discussed last time, the great writer Elmore Leonard, who died August 20, deplored adverbs. Experienced writers like Leonard prefer strong nouns and verbs. In this quiz, try rewriting each sentence with greater precision and economy. There are no correct answers, but our suggestions may be found in the Answers section.

1. Avoiding wordiness is basically a simple principle of good writing.
2. He went into the room quickly.
3. She was incredibly thrilled by the experience.
4. He said things about us that were viciously harmful and insulting.
5. The committee strongly expressed disapproval of them.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Avoiding wordiness is a fundamental of good writing.
2. He hurried into the room.
3. The experience elated her.
4. He vilified us.
5. The committee censured them.

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Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013, at 6:53 pm