Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Phenomena Phenomenon?

In the last week, I have heard two people who should know better misuse the word phenomena. I didn't think this was word that needed much explaining, but twice in a week? (At any rate, maybe these flubs will be the impetus that gets me blogging here more regularly again.)

Here's how it works:
  • Phenomenon is the singular form: The blinking purple light hovering over the White House remains an unexplained phenomenon.
  • Phenomena is the plural:  Three or four strange phenomena were occurring there every week, so the city banned food trucks in the clown cemetery.
Any time you find yourself saying or writing "a phenomena," pause and think. Unless you're using the word in some modifying phrase, like "a phenomena-explaining discovery," you want to use the word phenomenon instead.

I have generally been shying away from writing about words from a strictly prescriptivist point of view. I don't want to be the guy who tries to tell you how you must use your language. Rather, I'd like to be the guy who shows you how to do more with your language, and to use it to better effect.

But singular phenomena just won't float. Sure, a couple decades hence we might be having the same arguments we used to have about data being singular or plural, but we're not there yet. And besides, misuse of these two words might be more dangerous than data ever could be.

Legend has it that if you stare into a mirror and say "phenomena" three times in a row, a pair of eerie pink monsters will appear behind you.

Scarier still, if you say "phenomenon" three times, John Travolta will show up and try to recruit you to Scientology.
Although these phenomena are unproven, I advise you to use these words with care.