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Grammar Bite: Making Media Agree

Subject-verb agreement is a deceptively easy grammar rule: a single subject gets a single verb, and a plural subject gets a plural verb. Yet deciding when a noun is singular and when it's a plural is harder than it looks. In "Making Subjects and Verbs Agree," I outlined 10 subcategories of subject-verb agreement, noting that Amy Einsohn lists 25 subject-verb agreement rules in her Copyeditor's Handbook.

You'd think 25 rules would be enough.

The Media Problem

Amy recently shared with me a list of nine more rules she's identified and didn't have room for in the newest edition of The Copyeditor's Handbook. This one jumped out at me:

Media. In Latin, media is a plural noun (the singular is medium). In English, media is sometimes treated as a singular noncount noun ("The mass media has ignored the issue"), sometimes as a plural noun ("The media have been complicit in ignoring the issues").

Some of you are already shaking your heads. "Media is the plural of medium. It's never a singular noun." Certainly, that's still the case if we're talking about "an intervening substance through which something else is transmitted or carried on," as American Heritage Dictionary, 5th edition (AHD5) defines it, such as photography, painting, and sculpture.

But that's not the sense that English speakers are torn over. Rather, it's the sense of "a means of mass communication, such as newspapers, magazines, radio, or television" (AHD5). No one denies this meaning; it's whether in this sense media should be singular or plural. And as usual, the answer depends on whom you ask.

Polling the Experts

AHD5 advises against treating media as a singular noun, noting that only 38% of its Usage Panel would use do so. However, this is a change from the fourth edition, which did not allow media (meaning the news industry) to be used as a singular noun at all.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage agree that using media as a singular noun would generally be regarded as an error, except perhaps in the advertising field where the term seems to have originated.

However, several other dictionaries accept media as a singular noun. In addition, Garner's Modern American Usage states that media, "as a shortened form of communications media — is increasingly used as a mass noun. While that usage still makes some squeamish, it must be accepted as standard." Garner puts this change at stage 5 of his Language Change Index: "fully accepted." He does draw the line at medias, however.

Usage in the Wild

I hate when my favorite resources argue: how can I choose between AHD and Garner's? Sometimes the answer is to see what other writers and editors have decided.

I searched for media has and media have in Google News and Google Books for the period January 1, 2000–October 18, 2011. Perhaps unsurprisingly, usage of the two constructions was almost evenly split:

Source media has media have
Google News 45,500 48,400
Google Books 70,800 102,000
Total 116,300 150,400

Non-conclusion

All of this brings us right back to Amy's rule: sometimes media is a singular noun and sometimes it is a plural noun. It's a word whose usage is in flux. Until it settles down — if it does — either usage is correct, depending on audience. MWDEU notes that many people still recognize media as plural in a way that they no longer do with data. Know your audience. Using media as a singular noun in advertising, news, business, and casual writing is acceptable. Using it in academic and other formal writing may not be.

MWDEU reminds us that "media and medium are English words, even if naturalized, and are no longer subject to the rules of Latin." Given the evidence, I'd say media is finding its form within English rules.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday November 17th 2011, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
Erin,

Thanks for an interesting bite.

"Mass media have failed to provide valuable content."

"The mass media has failed to provide valuable content."

Any way you like it (with apologies to W. S.)

R/Mike
Thursday November 17th 2011, 11:23 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
You're welcome, Mike. Thanks for the compliment!
Thursday November 17th 2011, 11:28 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Excellent, Erin. I have faced this decision a lot and early on decided to treat media as singular or plural based on the context.
Friday November 18th 2011, 9:45 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Graeme. Context is a great determiner.
Sunday November 20th 2011, 8:35 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
A decisive conclusion, based on indecisive use mode.
As I was reading the article was thinking of presenting similar types of dual characters/word/word group in an identical pattern.The column is representing a methodical research criteria. I loved it and will use the process for confusion.
Monday November 21st 2011, 9:27 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, begum F.

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