8/10/2010

Here's a most unwelcome phenomenon

Mr. Rewrite is trying out his cool new iPad. Everything about it is as expected, including a keyboard that's going to take a lot of getting used to.

One of the great advantages of the 3G model is being able to surf the Web wherever Mr. Rewrite may be. So he was able to guffaw over this error while riding home on the light rail:
This phenomena has a high number of negative consequences.
Besides being overly bureaucratic, this passage errs in its use of phenomena vs. phenomenon, of course.

Mr. Rewrite's reference books, including the AP Stylebook, are clear on this one: Phenomenon is singular, phenomena plural. The word refers to observable occurrences or facts, often those that are rare and significant.

Yet Mr. Rewrite finds many mistakes on Google News, including some by news organizations that employ editors. He smoked them out by searching for this phenomena and these phenomenon (yes, some writers mistake the -on version for the plural), among other phrases. Bryan A. Garner (cue angelic chorus) notes that the plural phenomena is being confused more and more with the singular.

So the phenomenon of educated people botching this word is perplexing. Phenomena would be people botching this word and Mr. Rewrite levitating.

Less egregious in Mr. Rewrite's book is going with phenomenons as the plural. That's definitely against AP style, but Merriam-Webster OnLine lists phenomenons as a discredited variant. Surprisingly, the uber-permissive Dictionary.com doesn't.

It doesn't take a phenomenal amount of usage knowledge to get this one right. Just look it up.

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