Above: Spotted in Petone, Wellington, 2021.

How often have you fretted over plural nouns and wondered how to handle them? Is it ‘the data tell us . . .’ or ‘the data tells us . . .’? And should we say that ‘the media holds too much political power’ or ‘the media hold . . .’?

The problem stems largely from the magpie nature of the English language: we adopt foreign words and assimilate them until they effectively cease to be foreign, but, because they retain foreign-styled plural forms, niggly problems persist. The singular of ‘data’ is ‘datum’ (from the Latin word for a ‘thing known or given’). The singular of ‘media’ is of course ‘medium’. Artists will, for instance, choose a new medium, or work in mixed media.

The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors tells us firmly that ‘media’ is to be treated as a plural, but the guide is less clear on ‘data’, informing us simply that it’s the plural form of ‘datum’.

Me, I like correct usage, but I also can see that ‘the media’ is often used these days to refer to a singular collectivised entity, and that, even though it’s strictly wrong, we sticklers are, like Canute and the incoming tide, fighting a losing battle. So my personal suggestion with both ‘media’ and ‘data’ is that you fall one way or the other, but above all be consistent.

‘Criteria’ is another that seems to throw people, but there’s a strict ruling on this one. ‘Criteria’ is the plural form of ‘criterion’ (from the Greek word meaning a ‘means of judging’). So we need to be writing ‘special criteria apply’ and ‘there is one key criterion’.

Another non-negotiable is ‘strata’. You’ll sometimes hear people talk of ‘a strata of society’, whereas it should be ‘stratum’ (singular). Ditto ‘phenomenon’ (plural: ‘phenomena’).

It’s also worth noting what happens to foreign names when pluralised. In this example from the Chicago Manual of Style, the English kings take an ‘s’, but the French ones don’t, for reasons made clear:

the six King Georges of England and the sixteen King Louis [not Louises] of France

On a more light-hearted note: unless you are Italian, you may not know that the plural of pizza is pizze, or that ‘panini’ is actually the plural form of panino. What these words represent is the full assimilation of foreign terms into English, complete with Anglicised plurals: the word ‘pizza’ has entered into the language because English, despite its rich vastness, has no equal term for a dish-shaped baked-bread base topped with delicious things. Clearly, if you call Domino’s and ask for ‘two pizze’, the staff there will think you are odd – unless they too are Italian, in which case they may weep a little homesick tear and reward you with extra olives.

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