Grammar Bite: Making Media Agree

by Erin Brenner on October 21, 2011

Subject-verb agreement is a deceptively easy grammar rule: a single subject gets a single verb, and a plural subject gets a plural verb. Yet deciding when a noun is singular and when it’s a plural is harder than it looks. In “10 Subject-Verb Agreement Rules,” I outlined 10 subcategories of subject-verb agreement, noting that Amy Einsohn lists 25 subject-verb agreement rules in her Copyeditor’s Handbook.

You’d think 25 rules would be enough.

The Media Problem

Amy recently shared with me a list of nine more rules she’s identified and didn’t have room for in the newest edition of The Copyeditor’s Handbook. This one jumped out at me:

Media. In Latin, media is a plural noun (the singular is medium). In English, media is sometimes treated as a singular noncount noun (“The mass media has ignored the issue”), sometimes as a plural noun (“The media have been complicit in ignoring the issues”).

Some of you are already shaking your heads. “Media is the plural of medium. It’s never a singular noun.” Certainly, that’s still the case if we’re talking about “an intervening substance through which something else is transmitted or carried on,” as American Heritage Dictionary, 5th edition (AHD5) defines it, such as photography, painting, and sculpture.

But that’s not the sense that English speakers are torn over. Rather, it’s the sense of “a means of mass communication, such as newspapers, magazines, radio, or television” (AHD5). No one denies this meaning; it’s whether in this sense media should be singular or plural. And as usual, the answer depends on whom you ask.

Polling the Experts

AHD5 advises against treating media as a singular noun, noting that only 38% of its Usage Panel would use do so. However, this is a change from the fourth edition, which did not allow media (meaning the news industry) to be used as a singular noun at all.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage agree that using media as a singular noun would generally be regarded as an error, except perhaps in the advertising field where the term seems to have originated.

However, several other dictionaries accept media as a singular noun. In addition, Garner’s Modern American Usage states that media, “as a shortened form of communications media—is increasingly used as a mass noun. While that usage still makes some squeamish, it must be accepted as standard.” Garner puts this change at stage 5 of his Language Change Index: “fully accepted.” He does draw the line at medias, however.

Usage in the Wild

I hate when my favorite resources argue: how can I choose between AHD and Garner’s? Sometimes the answer is to see what other writers and editors have decided.

I searched for media has and media have in Google News and Google Books for the period January 1, 2000–Ocotber 18, 2011. Perhaps unsurprisingly, usage of the two constructions was almost evenly split:

Source media has media have
Google News 45,500 48,400
Google Books 70,800 102,000
Total 116,300 150,400

Non-conclusion

All of this brings us right back to Amy’s rule: sometimes media is a singular noun and sometimes it is a plural noun. It’s a word whose usage is in flux. Until it settles down—if it does—either usage is correct, depending on audience. MWDEU notes that many people still recognize media as plural in a way that they no longer do with data. Know your audience. Using media as a singular noun in advertising, news, business, and casual writing is acceptable. Using it in academic and other formal writing may not be.

MWDEU reminds us that “media and medium are English words, even if naturalized, and are no longer subject to the rules of Latin.” Given the evidence, I’d say media is finding its form within English rules.

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