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A “media” event

Q: My college professor took points off my term paper because I used “media” as a singular noun in the phrase “the impact media has on society.” He insists that “media” is plural. I disagree and I hope you can help me with my predicament.

A: Your professor hasn’t kept up with current usage.

The word “media” has been in transition in recent years. Lexicographers (that is, dictionary editors) now accept its use as a singular collective noun that can be accompanied by either a singular or a plural verb, depending on the context.

It’s singular when “media” refers to the communications industry as a whole. But it’s plural when “media” refers to communications outlets or forms of expression (that is, radio, TV, print, and so on).

That might be a good rule of thumb for you to use. If you mean “media” in the sense of “industry,” use it with a singular verb; if you mean “media” in the sense of “outlets,” use it with a plural verb.

Here’s how Pat explains this in the new third edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

“As for media, it’s singular when you mean the world of mass communications, which is most of the time. The media was in a frenzy. But it’s occasionally used as a plural to refer to the individual kinds of communication. The media present were TV, radio, newspapers, and the blogosphere. The singular in that sense is medium. The liveliest medium of all is the blogosphere.”

And here’s a passage from Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions:

“The term ‘media,’ incidentally, can be either singular or plural. Any purists who claim it’s only plural should take a look at an up-to-date dictionary. ‘Media’ is singular when it refers to the world of mass communication as a whole (‘The media is obsessed with celebrity trials’). It’s plural for the people in this world (‘The media are packed into the courtroom like sardines’) or for the types of communication (‘The media at the trial include radio, TV, and the blogosphere’). Who are the holdouts who insist that ‘media’ is strictly plural? Ironically, many of them are members of the media who haven’t heard the news.”

We might add that the evolution of “media” is similar to that of other words derived from Latin plurals. Among the words that were considered plural when they entered English but have become accepted over the years as singular nouns are “ephemera,” “erotica,” “stamina,” “agenda,” “trivia,” “insignia,” “candelabra,” and more recently “data” (as we noted in a post two years ago). 

Now “media” has joined the club. So “media has” is correct in the context of that sentence from your term paper.

As we wrote on our blog three years ago, “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.”

We’ve checked more recent versions of each dictionary—the fifth edition of American Heritage and a later printing of Merriam-Webster’s.

Merriam-Webster’s says that “media” is plural when it means “members of the mass media,” but that it can be either singular or plural in construction when it means “mass media.” It says the singular usage has been around since the 1920s and originated in the field of advertising. 

American Heritage has this usage note about “the media” as a singular noun:

Media also occurs with the definite article as a collective term that refers to the communities and institutions behind the various forms of communication. In this sense, the media means something like ‘the press.’ Like other collective nouns, it may take a singular or plural verb depending on the intended meaning. If the point is to emphasize the multifaceted nature of the press, a plural verb may be more appropriate: The media have covered the trial in a variety of formats. Quite frequently, however, media stands as a singular noun for the aggregate of journalists and broadcasters: The media has not shown much interest in covering the trial.”

Nevertheless, the dictionary adds, “many people still think of media predominantly as a plural form,” and consequently “it will be some time before the singular use of media begins to crowd out the plural use in the manner of similar Latin plurals, such as agenda and data.”

Your professor is among those who still regard “media” as exclusively plural. But in fact, usage has changed.

We’re not sure, though, that we can help you with your predicament. By all means, show him our answer. But sticklers tend to stickle, never mind evidence to the contrary.

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