English language Etymology Usage

Is the media the message?

Q: I’m an SAT tutor who’s puzzled about the word “media.” Do I tell my students it’s singular or plural? Please help!

A: It’s understandable that you’re puzzled. The use of “media” in the sense of mass communications has puzzled a lot of people since it entered English in the 1920s.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “media” in this sense lists nine published references, dating from 1923 to 1994. All of them appear to use “media” as a singular.

Here’s the earliest citation, from a book about advertising and selling: “Mass media represents the most economical way of getting the story over the new and wider market in the least time.”

Nevertheless, many language authorities have condemned the usage, apparently because media is plural in classical Latin.

For example, Theodore M. Bernstein, in The Careful Writer (1965), insists that “the singular is still medium and the plural is media.”

So what is a careful writer to do today?

We say (and modern dictionaries agree) that “media” is singular when it refers to the world of mass communications as a whole, but plural when it refers to the people in this world or the different types of communications.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, we give this example of the word used in the singular: “The media is obsessed with celebrity trials.”

And here are two examples from Origins of the word used in the plural: “The media are packed into the courtroom like sardines” … “The media at the trial include radio, TV, and the blogosphere.”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) recognize that “media” can be treated as either singular or plural.

Unfortunately, not everyone realizes this.

“Who are the holdouts who insist that ‘media’ is strictly plural?” we write in Origins. “Ironically, many of them are members of the media who haven’t heard the news.”

Let’s hope that the people at the Educational Testing Service who score the SAT have gotten the word. You might check with them before passing on this information to you students.

We should add that many words derived from Latin plurals have become accepted over the years as singular nouns in English.

Among them are “ephemera,” “erotica,” “stamina,” “agenda,” “trivia,” “insignia,” “candelabra,” and more recently “data.”

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