Apr 3, 2015

When should you use “phenomenon” or “phenomena”? PSA

Did you know there are words in English borrowed from completely ridiculous languages that nobody speaks anymore, like Classical Greek and Latin?

Yeah. There are.

Phenomenon, which comes down to us from Late Latin via Ancient Greek, means an observable fact; an observable aspect of some given thing (like a donkey in a hamster wheel*), or a wondrous person or thing, like a donkey in a hamster wheel**.


On account of their venerable descent, such words throw people for a loop when it comes time to use them well. The plural for phenomenon is phenomena, much like bacteria is the plural for bacterium, or datum means one data point, and the word “data” itself means a set of… of “datums.”***

So, for example, Brad Pitt is a phenomenon. Singular.

This goat is also a phenomenon. Singular.


Taken as a pair (or a group), Brad Pitt and the goat constitute a set of phenomena.

But if you splice them together, creating a single entity, you’re back to one phenomenon.


One goat or one Brad Pitt — each one is a phenomenon.
A bunch of goats is a set of phenomena.

There are several goats to be observed.

A group of Brad Pitts would be a phenomenon (an observable -- and astounding -- fact) but all these Brad Pitts together in one place would be phenomena, because we’re talking several instances of the phenomenon called Brad Pitt.

[Post-Scriptum: A List of Other Phenomena]

Grandfather clocks
April Ludgate
* I found the donkey’s picture above when I googled ‘donkey-powered helicopter’ the other day. Heed me now and be preserved from the kind of madness that would make you tattoo the words “gnothi seauton” on your forehead: You don’t want to know what other things I found.
** I know it's not a hamster wheel. It's a warp core. A medieval donkey-powered warp core.
*** Don’t you go off into the Internet spewing “datums” left and right, now. In general, do not spew. It’s bad form.

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