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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.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:46 PM | | Comments (11)


I tend to use the singular, "monolithic" media because people generally use it in the monolithic, non-discriminating sense: "The media blows these things way out of proportion." People don't usually draw fine distinctions when they make comments about the media: "CNN, Fox, MSNBC, ABC, NBC and CBS blow these things way out of proportion. Not NPR or the BBC, though."

Also: If you use "media" as a plural, doesn't that assume a singular "medium," same as "datum" or "bacterium"? But CNN isn't a medium. (It's a member of the media.)

I try to be a bold anti-stickler myself, but I think these notional-agreement cases are tough because we're all evolving at slightly different speeds. You can say "bacteria thrives," and I accept "the data is" and "the media is" (but usually don't write them), but I'll bet you don't write "a bacteria." (Yet we're both happy with "an "agenda.") My editor changed "the daring duo were" to "was" (and I let her, since either way is right), but for me a duo of people is (usually) plural.
In journalism, aren't we mostly trying to figure out not what's defensible, but what will annoy the fewest readers? (An approach that leads us into dullness often enough, but that's another subject.)

Mr McIntyre, nice post. I appreciate the way you balance tradition with evolution in language, coming down on the side of common sense and everyday usage.

As a physician in everyday practice, out in the community and not in academe, usage of the single and plural forms for these microbes is a mixed bag. My professional crowd is something of a hybrid between the layperson in my southern community---whose use of these words might be expected to have "loosened" a bit---and the ivory-tower academician, who'd hew faithfully to the traditional latinate neuter-noun singular/plural forms.

Nonetheless, I''m fairly sure that most of my colleagues would correct the headline. Exactly how to correct it would depend on the sense the speaker is trying to convey. "Harmful bacteria thrive" gives a sense of swarms of flesh-eating creatures multiplying menacingly in the murk (ie, plural individuals plotting our doom); while "harmful bacterium thrives" connotes a more detached, cold-blooded evaluation of the species as a interesting lab specimen (collective singular.)

Same with "visa": I normally get one visum at a time.

Just don't use the portmanteau construction "liberalmedia" (all one word, said with a sneer).

Here it is, folks: the moderate prescriptivist wiggling and wiggling like a worm on a hook, (hoist, by the way, on his own petard) but who can not admit: "I was in error: It's 'bacteria thrive'"

A few examples for Good 'n' Plenty to consider:

Article by L. Broxmeyer, “Is mad cow disease caused by a bacteria?”

Daniel Evanko, “Measuring a bacteria's sweet tooth”

“Salmonella is a bacteria that can cause an intestinal illness in people and animals.”

“The purpose of this technique is to introduce a foreign plasmid into a bacteria and to use that bacteria to amplify the plasmid in order to make large quantities of it.”

“An even more spectacular claim was made that a bacteria closely related to Virgibacillus marismortui was isolated from fluid inclusions in rock salt crystals of Permian age, over 250 million years old.” In “Endospores of halophilic bacteria of the family Bacillaceae isolated from non-saline Japanese soil may be transported by Kosa event (Asian dust storm)”

John, I sadly disagree. As the printed word wanes and basic language skills degrade under the assault of the electrons, any sacrifice of standards seems counterproductive. Where do we make our last stand? You are nearly always pragmatic about casual use, but especially in the big type, let's keep up the good fight. -- Michael in Seattle, copy editor emeritus, now a paralegal

I agree with you. I'm sure harmless bacteria thrive in the bay too (and other known harmful bacteria). The point of the headline, I assume, is to indicate that a particular kind of bacteria is thriving in that bay, one the reporter is going to tell us about. Making it plural only makes the incorrect "correction" stick out like a sore thumb. If it makes any difference, I edited scientific reports for more than a decade (quite a while ago), and all their authors would agree with you too.

To me, "... thrives in bay" implies a single type of bacteria is thriving, whereas "... thrive in bay" could be either a single type or multiple types of bacteria.

How about: "Little buggers thrive in bay" and move on? It has a nice insouciance to it. It's also fairly accurate.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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