I often hear people talk about a phenomenon, which refers to one thing or situation, when they need the plural of phenomenon—which is phenomena, referring to more than one thing or situation.
• Global warming is a potentially disastrous phenomenon.
• The phenomena that contribute to global warming are being studied extensively in hopes of avoiding worldwide catastrophes.
Another pair often misused are criteria (plural) and criterion (singular). If you have only one standard that must be met, you want criterion.
But here’s one you can stop worrying about: datum. That’s the singular of data. Today, data is used for both singular and plural. Why? Because common usage changes all languages. However, if you are using data as a plural, make your verb plural also:
• The scientific data are unequivocal that ocean temperatures are rising rapidly.
Have you noticed that some everyday words look like plurals and can be plurals but are also used as singular nouns? Here are a few:
Pants Those brown pants George is wearing are very baggy. George is wearing only one pair of pants, but grammatically they appear to be plural: pants are
Trousers Some people call pants “trousers.” George is wearing baggy brown trousers today.
Scissors Where did I put those scissors I was just using to cut this fabric? Chances are, the writer wasn’t using more than one pair of scissors to cut the fabric.
On my recent trip to Central Europe, I marveled at little children chatting away in Hungarian, Polish, German, Slovakian, and Czech. I couldn’t understand anything. But I’m sure speakers of those languages are amazed that English speakers learn all the idiosyncrasies of that language, even as small children. For the most part, by kindergarten age, they get it right. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? When you think about examples such as those above, you have to wonder how. I’m calling it learning by osmosis.
Without thinking about the etymology, many of us use Latin words every day: criteria/criterion, museum, auditorium, agenda, data, premium, for example.
For the most part, we take those words and subject them to our English rules. Except for criterion and data, we simply add an S to make the plural and no longer realize that the Latin plurals are musea, auditoria and premia. The singular of agenda is agendum, but we never see that any more.
One word losing the distinction between singular and plural is data. That is the plural form (datum is the singular), but we rarely see or hear the latter. It is becoming standard English to use “The data is confusing.” In fact, I’m guessing most people would be surprised to hear “The data are confusing.” Because data is not something easily separated into its components, this swing toward the ubiquitous singular is understandable.
The distinction between criterion (singular, referring to one component) and criteria (plural, meaning more than one component) still exists, and I admit I cringe when I hear or see a sentence such as, “I have only one criteria for cooking Thanksgiving dinner: someone else has to do it.” Keep using the singular and plural forms of these words; they still carry meaning.