Another one bites the dust?

Lynne Murphy m.l.murphy at SUSSEX.AC.UK
Fri Sep 7 15:42:01 UTC 2007

I went to what was possibly the worst theatre experience of my life last
night--the first half was just people reading from books--not very well
(we'd gone thinking it was going to be original material) and the second
half was an apparently un-rehearsed sketch about the paranormal.  In the
latter, 'phenomena' was used as singular all the way through--this was by
the editor of two magazines.

But the bit that really got me was the guy reading from a book who kept
pronouncing 'apparel' as APP-r-el.  (Perhaps the word was
unfamiliar--American fondness for [and British perceptions of] this word
came up on my blog back here:

Anyhow, I know that none of this is particularly relevant to the discussion
and that, hey, foreign plurals get funny in English and people mispronounce
words they don't know...but I had to make something out of it, because that

(Don't ask me why we didn't leave.  We just kept hoping it would get
better, and there were friends-of-friends involved.  By the end we realized
that the guy reading 20 minutes' worth of a decontextualized bit of a
Sherlock Holmes story in a funny voice was the high point of the
evening--and that was right at the beginning.)


--On Thursday, September 6, 2007 9:42 am -0700 "Arnold M. Zwicky"
<zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU> wrote:

> On Sep 6, 2007, at 9:03 AM, Gerald Cohen wrote:
>> I've often heard "a phenomena" and "a criteria,"  and last night on
>> the news someone spoke of "a paparazzi." We deal here with a
>> tendency (not a law, though, of course) to shift the plural to the
>> singular. I've noticed many more examples over the years, but they
>> don't come to mind at the moment.  Maybe it's time to compile them.
> from Garner's DMAU (1998: 494):
> phenomenon. Pl. phenomena... Several errors occur. First, and perhaps
> most commonly, the plural form is increasingly misused as a singular?
> e.g.: ... "No_ social phenomena_ [read _phenomenon_] highlights the
> change better than the explosive growth of religious cults"...
> Chicago Trib.
> Second, more strangely, the term _phenomenon_ is sometimes mistakenly
> used as a plural?e.g.: "[T ]hese irregularities could explain several
> _phenomenon_ [read _phenomena_] in the earth including the well-known
> jerkiness in the planet's rotational rate" ... N.Y. Times
> .....
> i got ca. 333 hits for “several phenomenon” on 2/23/07, mostly in
> scientific contexts.
> in fact, i believe that all possible patterns (except for the
> reversed pattern, sg. phenomena, pl. phenomenon) can be found:
> A1.  sg. phenomenon, pl. phenomena
> A2.  sg. phenomenon, pl. phenomenon [as above -- zero plural]
> A3.  sg. phenomenon, pl. phenomenons [regularization]
> B1.  sg. phenomena, pl. phenomena [spread of pl. to sg. -- zero plural]
> B2.  sg. phenomena, pl. phenomenas [spread of pl. to sg. plus
> regularization]
> if that weren't complicated enough, some people have more than one
> pattern.
> and, in my experience, different lexemes don't necessarily show the
> same pattern(s); "criterion" doesn't necessarily have the same pattern
> (s) as "phenomenon".
> a nice topic for further study, but i have to warn you that just
> asking people what form they use in particular contexts is probably
> not the way to go.
> arnold

Dr M Lynne Murphy
Senior Lecturer in Linguistics and English Language
Arts B135
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QN

phone: +44-(0)1273-678844

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