Q&A: Phenomenon vs phenomena

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week it's something like a phenomenon…

Q: Hi AWC – I have a question about “phenomena”.

A: Do do do do do.

Q: Phenomena.

A: Do do-do do.

Q: Phenomena.

A: Do doo de-do-do de-do-do de-do-do de-do-do-do do do do-doo do.

Q: What are you do-do-doing?

A: Sorry, it just reminded us of this muppets song.

Q: Oh okay. Cute.

A: Your question?

Q: Well, I was talking with a friend yesterday and her 11-year-old is currently obsessed with “fidget spinners”.

A: Oh, this is awkward.

Q: Why?

A: Well, you’ve gone and mentioned something topical. It’s fine now, but anyone reading back on our blog in a year’s time may not find it very relevant.

Q: Do you mean like that time we talked about Pokemon Go?

A: Yes. But anyway, you’ve started now. Carry on.

Q: Thanks. Well, these fidget spinner things have taken the world by storm, and I told my friend that it was quite a phenomena.

A: Uh-huh.

Q: My friend corrected me, saying they were actually a “phenomenon”. Is she right?

A: Yes, she’s right. But it’s a common mistake – referring to a singular “phenomenon” as the plural form “phenomena” instead.

Q: So can you give me examples of using them correctly?

A: Sure. Fidget spinners are just the latest phenomenon to hit toy stores. Other phenomena over the years have included Zhu Zhu Pets, Transformers and even Rubik’s Cube.

Q: I used to be able to solve those in under a minute.

A: Wow! The Rubik’s Cube? Impressive.

Q: No, Transformers. I always got stuck on Optimus Prime’s head…

A: Right, okay.

Q: So, why isn’t the plural of phenomenon “phenomenons”?

A: Fair question. “Phenomenon” has Greek and Latin origins, and adding “s” for plurals was never cool in those languages. Somehow its plural form survived the lexical lobotomy that gripped English in the Middle Ages.

Q: Is it the sole survivor?

A: Not at all. Another example is “criterion”/“criteria”, as well as “medium”/”media” and “datum”/”data”.

Q: You mentioned that using “phenomena” for singular is common?

A: That’s right. Words like “media” and “data” are now accepted for both the singular and plural form, but it’s still incorrect to use “phenomena” as a singular.

Q: So I shouldn’t call something “a phenomena”?

A: Nope.

Q: What about the word “phenom”? I’ve seen that around.

A: It’s a much newer word – turning up in the US in the 1890s, originally as baseball slang. It remains colloquial – today generally meaning someone with incredible talent.

Q: Someone with “phenomenal” talent even?

A: Haha, yes. “Phenomenal” is another word that arrived in the early 1800s – originally simply to describe the nature of a phenomenon. About 50 years later it took on today’s meaning of “remarkable” or “exceptional”.

Q: One final question. What did you think of the 1996 John Travolta film Phenomenon?

A: It was not phenomenal.

Q: Agreed. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find my old Rubik’s Cube and attempt to solve it in under six days.

A: Good luck!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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