May 12, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: phenomenon or phenomena & commas in numbers

Posted in commas, commas in numbers, phenomenon or phenomena at 6:26 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Phenomenon or phenomena

A reader writes:

In your experience is this a common error?  (The title, I mean). It always grates on me.

Public Health and Aging Seminar: “HIV and Aging: A Global Phenomena”

 That this mistake is so common surprised me. Maybe because I had to take years of Latin in elementary school, and the singular and plural forms of Latin words were pounded into my head, I rarely encountered this problem. [NOTE: Phenomenon is based on the Latin word, phaenomenon but originally hails from the Greek.] But as I investigated this, I found that this incorrect usage is often found. Garner wrote about it, as did Fowler, Lynch, Brians, and others. This is the rule: phenomena is plural, and phenomenon is singular; thus, you cannot ever have ‘a phenomena.’   You can have ‘a phenomenon.’ It is like ‘criteria’ and ‘criterion’ and other Greek and Latin words where the ‘a’ ending is plural (e.g., criteria) and the ‘on’ ending is singular (e.g., criterion) [NOTE: criterion is from the Greek]. A final thought about this topic is that making these plural by adding an ‘s’ (e.g., phenomenons) is never proper.

Now, our second question about the title of this talk is this: should it be HIV and Aging: Global Phenomena or HIV and Aging: A Global Phenomenon? The answer depends on whether the person is talking about the topics together as one unit or separately as two. In this case, I expect the speaker is interested in what HIV is like for older people, so she is talking about one unit; thus, the correct title would be HIV and Aging: A Global Phenomenon.

Tip 2: Commas in numbers 

A reader writes:

I noticed you inserted a comma in 7996 protocol reviews, so it reads “7,996.”  This is interesting to me.  How do the various style books come out on that one?

There are different schools of thought. Some guides say you should use the comma with four digits, some with five. I think it should be used with four for clarity, especially when the number is close to the year we are in ‘2,004 protocols,’ for example, as it can be confusing. However, keep in mind that this is a style issue rather than a rule.

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