Those Amazing Phenomenon

Listening to an interview on the radio yesterday, my ears perked up at the sound of another language error I see and hear a lot. There are a few words that have commonly come to be used as singulars, but they're really not. In this case, the interview subject happened to be an author, so you would think she knows better, but she was using the word phenomenon as both singular and plural. Normally, it's the other way around: you see and hear phenomena used as a singular quite a bit, while phenomenon more rarely makes its way into sentences.

I'm guessing this person was suffering from a misunderstanding similar to the one that causes the old I vs. me quandary I mentioned in the previous post. Perhaps someone had recently mentioned it to her, or maybe she had read something about misuse of the phenomena word, so she had decided to make a point of always using phenomenon, instead. I'm guessing it had just stuck in her mind in much the same way that old someone and I phrase gets stuck. In any case, phenomenon is always singular, and phenomena is always plural; you can't just swap the two at will without buggering up your sentence.

        These phenomena occur randomly.

        This phenomenon occurs randomly.

Another commonly misused word is toward. You see—and yes, hear—this one with the letter s hanging off the end all the time. I can't imagine a situation in which toward would be plural, and yet someone is always walking towards the horizon, moving towards the center, or even looking towards the future. Is this Zen? Is it a metaphysical reference? When does a word intended to indicate a particular direction represent more than one direction at the same time? And since I'm on the subject, some people always seem to move forwards, or talk backwards, when neither forward nor backward really need that letter s bringing up the rear, either.

One of my favorite misuses of a word's plural form is, of course, data. This one has become so ubiquitous in the language that any hope of change is probably misguided, and really, it almost certainly doesn't matter in everyday use anyway. But if you happen to be involved in technical writing, as I am, or otherwise stake your reputation on detail, it's simply one of those points you wouldn't want to overlook.

        These data are quantifiable, and robust.

        That datum has no place in this sample.

Actually, my favorite solution to the data problem is to just avoid using the word altogether, at least whenever I can get away with it.

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