The Grammarphobia Blog

Dracula and other phenomenons?

Q: It seems to me that “phenomenon” has two valid plurals: “phenomena” and “phenomenons.” Example: Federer is a “phenomenon.” Nadal is a “phenomenon.” They are “phenomenons” or “phenomena.” Right?

A: Modern dictionaries do accept “phenomenons,” but I think anyone who uses the term as the plural of “phenomenon” is likely to raise a few eyebrows. Mine, for instance.

Traditionally, the singular is “phenomenon” and the plural “phenomena,” although, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, the “singular phenomena and plural phenomenons are both frequently found (especially in speech and in informal writing).”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says that “phenomenon” is the only singular form, and that “phenomena” is the usual plural. But it adds that “phenomenons” may be used as the plural “in nonscientific writing when the meaning is ‘extraordinary things, occurrences, or persons.’ “

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) agrees for the most part. It says the singular is “phenomenon” and lists two possible plurals: “phenomena,” for more than one observable fact or event, and “phenomenons,” for more than one “exceptional, unusual, or abnormal person, thing, or occurrence.”

So I suppose that bird migrations, moon phases, or the mating habits of insects might be observable “phenomena,” while Dracula and the Frankenstein monster would be “phenomenons.”

Merriam-Webster’s also remarks in a usage note that “Phenomena has been in occasional use as a singular for more than 400 years and its plural phemonenas for more than 350.”

But M-W calls the singular “phenomena” a nonstandard usage, noting that it has “nowhere near the frequency of use” of words like “stamina,” “agenda,” and “candelabra,” all of which were once strictly plural and are now recognized as singulars.

Phenomenal, isn’t it?

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