Some data on criteria for plural phenomena in English


In response to Matthew Phillips’ comment on my last post, I thought I should add more on Latin and Greek plurals in English. He raises the question of consortia being used as a singular noun in English, but is relieved to find that retaining consortium as the singular is not yet a lost cause, as a Google search finds roughly eight times as many hits for “We are a consortium” as for “We are a consortia”.

However,  both media and data are now regularly used with singular verbs, and this weekend I’ve heard strata as a singular. Criteria and phenomena are frequent singulars. Is this something to do with –a being a Latin feminine singular ending? All these nouns now appear to be treated as invariable, with the same form for the singular as the plural. At least, I have not yet consciously come across examples of *medias, *datas, *criterias, *phenomenas (and a Google search for the latter two distinctly discourages their use). This puts them in the same category as sheep and deer.

The word referendum, on many British people’s minds at the moment, has two plurals, the Latin referenda, and the anglicized referendums. At the time of the 1974 referendum in the UK on the then Common Market, my predecessor as Head of the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit, Hazel Wright, put forward the proposition that they could usefully be distinguished, the English plural being used for the process, for which an alternative word might be plebiscite, so that we can say that there have been two referendums in Scotland recently: in 2014 for separation from the United Kingdom, and in 2016 for staying or leaving the EU. The Latin plural is then retained for the actual question being asked, so that when a referendum is held in Switzerland, for example, there may be several questions on the voting paper, and these questions are the referenda. Wikipedia (sv referendum) seems to confirm this distinction, and says that the OED does not like referenda as the English plural.

Memorandum also has both forms for the plural in English: memoranda and memorandums, although the abbreviation memo is the most usual form seen (how long will it be before some bright spark decides that memo is a Latin word, and needs the plural memi?) Both referendum and memorandum are technically Latin gerundives (adjectives formed from verbs), which decline like BONUS (i.e. the feminine forms are like 1st declension nouns, e.g. REGINA, and the masculine and neuter forms are like 2nd declension nouns, such as DOMINUS and BELLUM). Hence the plurals of words ending –um in –a. One such Latin plural is confidently singular in English, and forms its own plural in the English way with –s: agenda.

Now, does anyone plant nasturtia in their garden?


  1. That is one field that some of us have a problem with especially when you learn English as a foreign language thanks for the article

  2. Perhaps not directly on topic, but I feel the need to let off steam… I’m currently reading a new book on genetics by the science writer and broadcaster Adam Rutherford. The rather too frequently employed tone of forced jollity (which may work well on a 30-minute radio programme but does tend to get on one’s nerves when reading) does to some extent mar what is otherwise a very interesting work, but what really makes me want to fling the book down in disgust is that Dr Rutherford keeps attributing this and that development in genetic evolution to the influence of “a bacteria”. Aargh! Am I over-reacting?

  3. French has had “les médias” since at least the late 80s. Don’t feel bad!

  4. I’ve also had occasion to pull up on its very sloppy sentences to illustrate meaning:

    Here the site quotes The Seattle Times as an example of correct usage where you will read,

    “If they don’t meet that criteria then we would not close the freeway.”Seattle Times Dec 23, 2016″.

    I would hesitate to promote such sites, but other people use them and are getting slop.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.