What's that in the bay?
It was my headline on the front page of this morning’s Sun: Harmful / bacteria / thrives / in bay. A colleague asked whether that should be thrive, and I, bold in heresy, said no.
Differing once from Bryan Garner, who says emphatically that bacteria is the plural of bacterium and that using bacteria as a singular, as journalists are given to do, falls into his “widely shunned” category.
But my understanding of the language is that bacteria has reached the point where data previously arrived. Though their singular forms remain in limited, usually specialized use, they have been transformed by usage into collective nouns that can be either singular or plural in context.
Bacteria can be a plural when referring to swarms of the little buggers, singular in identifying a species: Bacteria are multiplying rapidly in the warm, nutrient-rich waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The vibrio bacteria has the potential to be a serious health risk. This, at least, is how I understand scientists to be using the word when they are quoted.
Please feel free to differ in the comments below. Or agree.
(Sticklers, once their blood pressure has returned to normal levels, can be reassured that I am grimly holding the line on media as a plural, however, because I am not convinced, and unlikely to be persuaded, that newspapers, magazines, radio, broadcast television, cable television, the Internet, and movies constitute a monolith.)