Sunday, 26 September 2010

A singular disappearance

I know this is going to read like a letter in green ink from Disgusted Of West Cross, or just another example of my "onanism" as one of my many anonymous followers recently put it, but I have to get this off my chest. For some time now, I have been niggled by the misuse of "criteria" and "phenomena" as single nouns, when in fact they are plurals. The last straw was loaded this morning on Radio 4's "Broadcasting House" in an otherwise impeccable piece by Dr Mark Roodhouse on the "phenomena" of the spiv. One is used to daily journalists, not noted for respecting the English language, blurring distinctions of usage, but Roodhouse is an academic's academic.

I have to hold my hand up at this point, as a contributor to the degradation of "datum" as a singular. The word was safe in its scientific haven, where the tradition of Latin had not died, but once the explosion in IT in the 1960s occurred, all sorts of half-educated people had to be recruited as programmers and systems analysts/designers. It is little wonder that we picked up mathematical and scientific terms from the pioneers of computing without completely understanding them. The fact that we called IT "Automatic Data Processing" in those days is indicative.

Many will object that this does not matter. Greek and Latin are dead languages. We have managed with "sheep" and "fish" as both singular and plural in English virtually since English existed as a separate language.
One answer is that language helps shape our thought, as Orwell memorably pointed out in his essay on language and political thought. If our perception of distinctions in language is dulled, then our thinking, in particular our ability to analyse, is also dulled. To a handyman whose only tool is a hammer, every screw looks like a nail.

My response is that these distinctions are still useful. The best example is the word "medium". As a noun it has several meanings deriving from the sense of an "intervening means, instrument or agency" (Chambers). (Hence the medium who professes to act as an intermediary between us and the spirit world, and who is still pluralised with a final "s".) In the sense of a means of transmitting information, it was famously used by Marshall McLuhan. So far, so good. We could refer to the "print medium", or the "medium of radio", and use the plural "media" to cover all the various means of communication. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way "media" has come to mean just "television" and, unless that word is rescued, we are going to have to find a new, probably more cumbersome, phrase to describe the gamut of press, broadcasting and the arts.

There is hope. It is fashionable on this side of the Atlantic to sneer at American dumbing-down, and also to assume that scientists are not interested in the finer points of language, but, in my experience, all the scientists from the USA who have contributed to "Material World" or BBC news programmes speak of "a phenomenon" or "a criterion" and treat "data" as a plural. It must be something to do with the high regard in which correct English usage is held over there, most visibly expressed in the competitive spelling bees culminating in a national championship. I remember when these used to be a teaching tool in English & Welsh schools. Perhaps they should be brought back.

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