Striking the happy media

Time for another of my moans about linguistic infelicities.

Many years ago, man had really only one way of communicating – the spoken word. Then came writing, and printing; a few centuries on came the telephone, and then radio, and then television. Soon there arose the need to have a single word that would embrace all these different methods. Each was – is – a medium of communication; so it made sense, when referring to all of them, to use the plural of medium, which – because of its Latin root – is media (though it could be argued that mediums would be equally acceptable, and even perhaps preferable).

Anyway, the media soon became part of common parlance. But far too many people nowadays (including some journalists who should know better) seem to forget that it is in fact a plural word, and come out with remarks like “The media is to blame” – which seems to defeat the whole purpose of having a word that refers to  many entities.

I know there are words – such as the public – which can take a singular or a plural verb depending  on the context; but I don’t think this applies to the media. Anyone want to argue?

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3 Responses to “Striking the happy media”


  1. 1 Charlie January 5, 2009 at 2:29 am

    John–

    I’ve been thinking about this more than I should admit and have come to the conclusion that, while your assertion of the overuse of the word media has merit, the wide use of the word medium complicates it much further. As is often the case, the English language seems to complicate communication as temporal and geographical demands require, and the word medium seems not to be immune.

    Using your example “the media is to blame” (and I heard it incessantly during the 2008 presidential election here in the states–especially from those whiners, the republicans who would be using it in the plural, inclusive sense), I wonder if “the medium is to blame” would confuse things further–the following come to mind:

    “The medium is to blame–I should have bought large briefs and now my midrif aches constantly.”

    “The medium is to blame–I never should have tried to contact my great aunt this way, she always was insufferable.”

    “The medium is to blame–I never should have used glue in that chemistry experiment.”

    “The medium is to blame–once again our ambassador to Chile has displayed his ignorance of the Spanish language.”

    Unfortunately, our various use of the word medium has rendered the use of media, whether as singular or plural, as a more reasonable alternative to the use of medium as it relates to modes of communication. We know what is meant by ‘media,’ and can deduce through context whether singular or plural is implied. ‘Medium’ has too many alternative definitions and use of the word as a singular mode of communication has lapsed in use to the point that it may be too late to reinstate its use.

    Maybe a commission to monitor future use of English should be established to provide some equilibrium and avoid additional lapses. (I’m half-serious, but share your consternation with this crazy language)

    Happy New Year to you!!

  2. 2 johnchap January 5, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Hi Charlie

    A very happy New Year to you, too!

    Thanks for your comment – I enjoyed the humour (or, sorry, humor) of it; but I fear I did not make my intention clear in my original post. I was not suggesting that “The media is to blame” should be changed to “The medium is to blame” – which, while grammatically correct, could, as you say, lead to many confusions. My point was that “media”, in the context we are discussing, is always a plural, deliberately intended to embrace all the many methods of communication, and should therefore take a plural verb – i.e. the sentence should be: “The media are to blame”.

    I quite like the idea of an authority to rule on ‘correct’ language (they have one in France), but I fear it would be doomed to fail; there are just too many influences changing and shaping the language, and those of us who care about correctness are, I fear, a dying breed.

  3. 3 Charlie March 25, 2009 at 1:42 am

    Greetings John–

    Not having seen a post from you in a while, I am hoping you’re well and otherwise happily occupied.

    I’m about to captain a study of “Hamlet” in one class, having just completed “The Merchant of Venice” in another. I love the chance to study Shakespeare’s work with even the most reluctant students.

    Best regards,

    Charlie


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