Etymology Usage

How singular is “metrics”?

Q: My dictionary says “metrics” should be used with a singular verb, but a sentence like this doesn’t sound right to me: “The economic metrics doesn’t show improvement.” What do you say?

A: The plural noun “metrics” takes a singular verb when used in its traditional sense: the study of meter, especially in poetry.

The word has been used in this way since the late 19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, replacing a singular version dating from the 15th century.

But you’re asking about a much newer meaning of the plural “metrics” that showed up in the 1980s: measurements, figures, statistics, and so on. In this sense, the word “metrics” is used with a plural verb.

A somewhat similar singular version, “metric,” which dates from the 1930s, refers to a standard of measurement, a quantifiable criterion, or a set of such criteria. (A technical use of “metric” in mathematics and physics dates from the 1920s.)

The earliest written example in the OED of the newer sense of the plural “metrics” is from a 1988 report on avian ecology: “Prediction of bird-community metrics in urban woodlots.”

The Oxford editors describe this sense of the word as colloquial—that is, more appropriate to speech or casual writing than to formal writing.

The example above, however, sounds pretty formal to us. And we see a lot of “metrics” now in all kinds of writing—too much of it, in our opinion. It’s tiresome.

Standard dictionaries have entries for the singular “metric” in its statistical sense, but most of them don’t yet list the new measurement sense of the plural “metrics.”

However, the newer usage is alive and well among English speakers, especially those who like techie talk.

Here’s an example from an Aug. 31, 2012, article on ZDNet about the use of statistics to evaluate information technology employees says:

“Although appearing beneficial, metrics can drive shortsighted behaviors at the expense of innovation and real business value.”

As for the earlier poetic sense of “metrics,” the first citation in the OED is from an 1892 issue of the journal Modern Language Notes: Metrics and aesthetics go hand in hand.”

And here’s a later citation, from a 1970 issue of the Journal of English and Germanic Philology: Rules for syntax and metrics in Beowulf.”

We won’t get into all the technical uses of the nouns “metric” and “metrics,” or the use of “metric” as an adjective in the metric system of measurement.

We’ll also skip the suffixes “-metric” (relating to measurement) and “-metrics” (applying statistics to a field of study), though we recently discussed “sabermetrics” on the blog.

Ultimately, all these metrical words are derived from ancient Greek terms for meter or measure.

Check out our books about the English language