Learn English – ‘phenomena’ as singular: usage


We know phenomena is a plural whose singular form is phenomenon. However, I have seen frequent of use of phenomena itself as singular, as in 'this is a phenomena …', 'this phenomena is …', etc.

This Google Ngram shows such use may also have been present in literature, 'this phenomena' being more frequent.

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How do we explain this discrepancy and suggest that the usage is wrong?

[Edit 1]: Will usage eventually redefine grammar in such cases as 'phenomena' and 'criteria' then? (inspired by @Barrie England 's comment.)

Best Answer

There is a tendency for the plurals of Latin words to be treated over time as singular in English and eventually to lose their singular forms, changing their meanings in doing so. Agenda, stamina and data are three examples. This doesn’t seem to happen as much with Greek words such as criterion/a. The reason is possibly that such words are more learnèd and less frequent and may be used by people who know and insist on the difference between the singular and plural. However, as far as phenomena is concerned, ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ reports that there are instances of its singular use as early as the sixteenth century and that there is good corpus evidence that is gaining ground now. Research in Australia in the 1970s, the article continues, showed that most young people there thought of the word as singular. The article concludes that ‘phenomena seems to be consolidating its position for plural uses, apart from extending its influence into the singular' (my emphasis).