Word Count

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Media Rare: Revisiting Singular vs. Plural

Last month, a post at the Poynter Institute took a strong stand: "It's time for copy editors to loosen the cardigan when it comes to 'media,'" Andrew Beaujon wrote. He said he felt "like a tool writing 'The media are.'"

No reason to feel like a tool. "Media" as a mass noun, taking a singular the way "furniture" does, has reached Stage 5 on the Language-Change Index, Bryan A. Garner's Modern American Usage says, meaning it is completely proper English. Garner does note, however, that "that usage still makes some squeamish."

But let's not be so fast to set "rules" that can jettison a useful distinction.

Three years ago, we wrote that "media" was heading toward universal singular acceptance. But today, as then, The Associated Press Stylebook wants to keep it plural: "In the sense of mass communication, such as magazines, newspapers, the news services, radio, television and online, the word is plural: The news media are resisting attempts to limit their freedom." Note the use of the word "news" before "media," which somehow softens the plurality of "media." And, just to show that Garner can wear cardigans when necessary, the grammar section that he wrote for The Chicago Manual of Style says: "In scientific contexts and in reference to mass communications, the plural of medium is media."

In other words, those cardigan-wearing copy editors were told to put on that sweater. Don't kill the messenger, please.

Even granting that most people use "media" wantonly, making "media" singular all the time creates a monolithic label, with all sorts of connotations. (Does anyone think the label "MSM" for "mainstream media" is a compliment?)

So instead of following a "rule," let's use the same guidelines that govern whether "couple" is a singular or a plural: If the two members of the couple are acting as one, use a singular: "The couple is planning a vacation to the Bahamas." If the two members are acting separately, make them plural: "The couple disagree whether to go by boat or plane."

Using that guideline (and a brain), "media" would be singular when speaking of news organizations as a single unit: "The media plans to file a FOIA request." But when there needs to be a distinction among the members of the media, make it plural: "The media are unclear about whether to request some or all of the documents."

Even copy editors in cardigans should know enough to take it off when the heat is on, without worrying about catching a linguistic chill.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 29th 2012, 12:26 PM
Comment by: Marcum Eli K. (Palo Alto, CA)
We need to loosen the rules on data as well.

Data often means "the set of information" as in "the set of information shows..." rather than "the many different pieces of information show..."
Thursday March 29th 2012, 1:51 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Interesting that the word news is added to soften the impact of media are , since I think we would all say "The news is not good" or some such. On the other hand, news must have traveled this road itself, since it is obviously a plural form standing in for "new occurrences," "new reports," "new things," and so on.

To Marcum: you can get around the problem with data by using dataset , which is not only singular but I think is closer to what you're trying to convey (the collective outcome).

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