Thinking of language on a beautiful, hot summer day.


Languages evolve. That’s a truism, of course. It’s inevitable but some of us like to hold on to some of the rules of grammar, syntax, spelling and composition we learned in school and the new constructions grate a little.

I learned both French and English in school including their different yet sometimes related words, spellings, compositional dictates and tone. Of course, both French and English have evolved but it might be more precise to say  that English actually evolved from French and German. English, it has been said, is the garbage pail of languages. Everything gets thrown in there and very few seem to mind. That said, English has done very well for itself, especially with a helping hand from colonialism.

In English, generally, if one wants to pluralize a word, one simply adds an s to it although there are a number of exceptions. That’s clear with words that end in y. Baby becomes babies, and so on. Army becomes armies. But, hold on, why do the British in general refer to army in the plural, as in: “The army, they marched for days on end.” Now, that’s perverse in my mind. An army is a unit and the word army should always be used in the singular. Now, if more than one army is the subject of interest, then, by all means, use armies. So,  there are many ways of indicating the plural in English, but there is a lot of confusion these days with words like data, media, agenda and  the like. The singular forms of these words, for your edification, are datum, medium and agendum. It’s rare these days in the communications media to hear or read the word media used as a plural noun. It’s consistently used as a singular noun as in: “The media is going to get it with Trump as president.”

Data is the same thing. That famous character on Star Trek named Data should probably have been called Datum. Scientists and science broadcasters should know better. When they report that the data indicates this or that, I must confess that I cringe a little. The data may indicate many things and I’m quite happy about that, but the data ‘it’ does this or that is just wrong. In a recent CBC interview I heard a scientist being interviewed by a well-meaning but slightly inattentive interviewer. He properly referred to a particularly virulent bacterium several times and the interviewer returned with bacteria in reply every time.

Same thing for agenda, which is the plural form of agendum. If you have a meeting you have an agendum, I suppose, if you’re properly organized. You may, however, have hidden agenda, meaning that you may have several preferred outcomes for a discussion you may be involved in leading you to steer decisions in your favour.

However, things aren’t always so simple. Lacuna is the singular of lacunae and algae is the singular of alga.

I know the language is evolving. I’m not tilting at windmills here. Still, there is a part of me that is somewhat nostalgic for the ‘proper’ use of English. There, I said it. Send in the trolls.

 

 

 

 

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