An Astronomer Gets a Tricky Word Right

rogersgeorge on May 19th, 2016

If I wrote that title as a headline the way the media do, I’d write “Astronomer Gets Tricky Word Right!” (Sounds more exciting with those articles taken out, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the media for you.) I’ve written about the word “media” in the past. Usage of that word is a good example of linguistic change. Many people use the word to refer to TV, radio, newspapers, news feeds, and other sources of broadcast information as “the media,” and they treat it as a singular. One of my favorite astronomers, Phil Plait, used the term recently, and I feel justified in commenting. Especially since the passage is reasonably thought-provoking and it’s worth reading anyway (emphases are mine):

I think a lot of scientists are on top of the idea that they need to understand how the media work to be able to get their message across. Certainly climate scientists are aware of this (the RealClimate site is written by professional climatologists).

This is a step in the right direction. It’s not a cure-all, of course, since I don’t think any such unicorn exists. If such a beast were real—if there were one thing I would change about how we consume information—it would take the form of people learning how to think critically about the news they get, assessing it logically. Is the medium biased? Who funds that particular outlet? Are you as a consumer biased, willing to believe something more readily because it aligns with your personal beliefs? What information are you being given that’s wrong, and what’s being left out?

That would be a wonderful thing. A lot of media outlets would vanish in a puff of logic were such conditions to prevail. And the world would be a far safer, healthier, and smarter place.

  1. This is plural. Correct! Note the plural verb “work,” not the singular “works,” and the plural “their.”
  2. Singular. He’s referring to the creator of the article or show or whatever you’re looking at or listening to.
  3. Adjective. Technically neither singular nor plural, though he used the plural form to match “outlets.”
“Media” occurs elsewhere in the original post, and he gets it right every time.

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More small mistakes

rogersgeorge on January 31st, 2012

As if there were such a thing as a small mistake. It depends on your perspective, of course. I have a rule in cooking: if you have basically good ingredients, and don’t destroy them, you’ll come up with something that’s at least acceptable. If your cake falls, serve it under or over ice cream. It’ll still be pretty good. On the other hand, a single typo in your résumé could keep you from getting that interview.

Perhaps I can define a small mistake as one that’s easy to fix. Small mistakes are not the hard part of writing.

Today, class, we look at some words whose plurals are easy to get wrong.

Data—This word is plural. The singular is datum. You generally see this used correctly in scientific writing, where they perform a lot of statistical analysis on piles (scientific term) of data, and you can see sentences like “The data are fairly convincing; only one datum is an outlier.”

The plural of "date" is "dates" and they have nothing to do with data

Media—This word is a plural. When we say “mass media,” we refer to all the TV and radio stations, and all the newspapers and magazines. The singular is medium, and sometimes you see it when someone refers to one of the media.

The medium of radio is the only one you can use while you do something else.

This word has become contaminated by the use of “medium” to refer to someone who holds séances, and the plural of this word is “mediums.” I predict that “media” will eventually become a singular and its plural will become “medias.” But not yet, so get it right.

Criteria—Our third plural. The singular is criterion. I remember a fancy restaurant in St. Paul named The Criterion. They claimed to be the standard by which other restaurants should judge themselves. I ate there once. They cut the lettuce for the salad instead of tore it. Didn’t meet my criterion for how to prepare a salad.  I recently read a pretty good article about mistakes you can make in a job interview. The article got “criteria” wrong, and it’s this sentence in the article that gave me the idea for this post.

When I am hiring though, and if you happen to apply, the above is the criteria I will use to decide.

Since the writer was referring to a list of five items, she should have written “…the above are the criteria…”

These mistakes are commonly made by well-educated professionals. The plurals are slightly more high-falootin’ than the singulars, so I could have classified this lesson under my oft-used heading, “the sin of pretentiousness.”