New ideas in social media

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Today's SMBC:

Mouseover title: "This may be the old-man-iest comic I've ever done."

The Aftercomic:


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 8:41 am

    Frame 4 ("A totally new kind of social media …") . I would have expected "social medium" here — am I alone in retaining this particular singular/plural distinction ?

  2. Jon W said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 9:39 am

    The 85 million ghits for "social media is" compared to 12 million for "social media are" suggests that "social media" has become a mass noun for most folks.

  3. NSBK said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 10:05 am

    I think "social media" is treated in my suburban/southeast American idiolect as an uncountable singular noun.

    So instead of
    * "many social media(s) are available today"
    I would need to use a counter and say
    "many types of social media are available today"

    And instead of
    * "social media are omnipresent"
    I would say
    "social media is omnipresent"

    So to me "social media" is like "data" where I couldn't talk about
    *"one datum" or *"two data"
    but instead I would need to say
    "one piece of data" or "two pieces of data"

    In short, I think that foreign words (including Latin here) don't always retain their singular/plural distinctions when they come to English, and in my opinion that is not necessarily a Bad Thing.

    Some examples with
    English-singular : English-plural [ original plural ] origin
    octopus : octopuses [ octōpodēs ] from Greek via Latin
    tycoon : tycoons [ taikun ] from Japanese
    hors-d'oeuvre : hors-d'oeuvres [ hors-d'œuvre ] from French

  4. Michael said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 10:10 am

    Maybe because I'm young (26) but media does not feel like the plural of medium. They have two different meanings to me and the plural of medium is mediums. I'd say "There are various mediums of communication" rather than "There are various media of communication" (this sentence with media is completely unidiomatic to me).

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 10:46 am

    Jon W.: The 85 million ghits for "social media is" compared to 12 million for "social media are" suggests that "social media" has become a mass noun for most folks.

    And that "folk" now has a plural "folks" for most Americans, including me.

    And that Philip Taylor is not alone, though Google counts are unreliable, and those searches are confounded by such constructions as "The (dis)advantage of social media is" and "The (dis)advantages of social media are".

    Results from GloWbE (the Global Web-based English corpus, released in 2013) with the phrases following a period:

    . Social media is: 706 (U.S. 133, GB 150)

    . Social media are: 25 (U.S. 5, GB 6)

  6. Daniel Barkalow said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 12:00 pm

    For me, "media" is the plural of "medium", but the idiom is "social media", so "social medium" would just be a medium that's social, rather than referencing the concept of "social media".

  7. Trogluddite said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 3:54 pm

    I imagine that most ghits for "the media" would also be singular, and would refer collectively to journalists, authors, performers, etc. and the people/organisations who employ them, rather than to any medium for transmitting information. I take the "media" in "social media" to be analogous; referring to the people and service providers who create content and/or the activity of using the technology, not to the technological means of carrying it. As Daniel Barkalow pointed out, the different treatment of the singular form is surely just a predictable consequence of distinct glosses having very different referents.

    And what of people who can read minds and/or speak to the dead? They are "channels of communication", thus each one is a "medium"; but I would never read "the media" as meaning a group of mind-readers! ;-)

  8. AJJ said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 4:25 pm

    It wasn't until I was 17 that I was told that media came from the plural of medium. Definitely separate words to me—they don't even feel related in meaning, though I know logically/etymologically they are.

  9. L. said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 5:16 pm

    For me (American, 35), "the media" and "social media" are mass nouns, the plural of "medium of communication" is "media of communication," and the plural of "spiritual medium" is "spiritual mediums."

  10. Martha said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 7:54 pm

    My intuition is the same as both L's and NSBK.

    I can't imagine myself using the phrase "media/medium of communication," although I agree with L's statement, so the first thing I thought of for the possibility for media being the plural for medium was "art media."

  11. The Other Mark P said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 8:03 pm

    I think "social media" is utterly non-countable. While you might count one way, I would count another, so that an agreed total is impossible. Trying to pin an actual thing as "one: social medium is fraught to say the least.

    For example, let us name "a social medium": some would say Bloggr is one, and Tumblr another, since they are so different. But others would say blogging, taken as a whole, is a medium (in the same way that we count newspapers as a medium of communication, and not The Washington Post as one distinct medium).

    Do blogging and micro-blogging count as one?

    Do we count Facebook as one distinct social medium? If so, is Facebook Messenger another, or part of the same one? For my children, they would definitely be different, since they use them for different purposes.

    In any case, in the comic they are talking about changing the whole tone of all social media, so are addressing the concept of "social media" as a whole — since otherwise they aren't going to get rid of the mean-ness that starts the conversation.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 8:29 pm

    I would agree that "a new kind of…" calls for a singular noun if using a count noun. But, as others have observed, "social media" is a generally used as a non-count noun. Thus, "a new kind of social media".

  13. Mark P said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 10:05 pm

    I took Latin in school, so I have this notion lurking in the back of my mind that words derived from Latin should follow the rules of plural formation. For some reason my German in high school did not have a similar effect. In any case, my many years of being wrong about lots of things has made me wary of issuing rulings.

  14. Ulf said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 11:57 pm

    I agree with Michael. And I'm three decades older than he is. "Various media of communications" sounds ridiculously wrong. "various mediums" sounds A-ok.

  15. Jason M said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 1:31 am

    My journalist and restrictivist dad insisted all my life “media are plural”, usually with a profane epithet after the “are” for emphasis. A newspaper is a medium, so is a TV news station. Together they are media.

    No one else seems to follow this rule though, and I wonder if it’s been violated for over a century like many such rules that conservative usage czars have been using for decades to substantiate their claims for the recent dissolution of the English language. Anyone ngram it yet?

    Plural of psychic medium is clearly mediums though.

    A field where medium singular with media plural rule is pretty common, nearly exclusively so in print, is in biology where we grow cells in tissue culture medium and use different types of media for different cells.

  16. Lieven said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 3:31 am

    Medium and datum are occasionally used but I don't think I've ever seen `agendum' in the wild, so there is a pattern of latinate plurals becoming collective singular nouns.

  17. Trogluddite said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 1:26 pm

    @Lieven: "…there is a pattern of latinate plurals becoming collective singular nouns."
    In other words, of them being modified to fit English speakers' intuitive expectations of how plurals are formed, thus avoiding the cognitive load of having to recall yet another exception to the rules!

    The origin of a word is of no consequence to the vast majority of speakers, not even to linguistics fans in the vast majority of utterances. No matter how new forms come about, once they exist, there's bound to be a natural appeal to using a form with regular declensions for the overwhelming majority of us who choose our words for their semantics, not their etymology (whether we call this pragmatic efficiency or intellectual laziness, is, of course, a matter of opinion!)

    It is only for people pondering them academically or using them as shibboleths that the words we're discussing are *Latin* words. When used in the flow of everyday communication, they are *native* words which just happen to look and sound very similar. (Not that I don't find "pondering them academically" incredibly gratifying, of course!)

  18. Ellen K. said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 2:09 pm

    Agenda, seems to me, it's a collective noun but has instead (or maybe further) because a singular noun for a type of list.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 5:59 pm

    Correction, agenda is NOT a collective noun…

  20. Daniel Cuertin said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 8:29 pm

    "Agenda" is singular in (medieval) Latin. It is construed as a feminine noun, coming from gerundive of ago, meaning something like "that which must be done."

  21. Geoff said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 10:29 pm

    Daniel Cuertin, 'agenda is construed as feminine' – more evidence please? I would have assumed that 'agendum' is 'the/a thing that must be done' (neuter singular) and 'agenda' is 'things that must be done' (neuter plural), and 'agenda' in English has since been reanalysed as a singular count noun.

  22. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 1:44 am

    @Geoff: The OED says that English agenda is from the classical Latin neuter plural, as you assumed; but it also notes that "In post-classical Latin, the classical Latin neuter plural noun was frequently reinterpreted as feminine singular (from the 7th cent.)." I'm not sure if it's suggesting that this reinterpretation in post-classical Latin is a contributing factor to the use of "agenda" as a singular noun in Modern English, or what.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 10:10 am

    Trogluddite: The origin of a word is of no consequence to the vast majority of speakers, not even to linguistics fans in the vast majority of utterances. No matter how new forms come about, once they exist, there's bound to be a natural appeal to using a form with regular declensions for the overwhelming majority of us who choose our words for their semantics, not their etymology (whether we call this pragmatic efficiency or intellectual laziness, is, of course, a matter of opinion!)

    But there's more to the story, witness the popularity of "cacti" and even "octopi" as well as the appearance of irregular forms such as "snuck" and past-tense "text".

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 10:20 am

    Jerry — for the more conservative amongst us, "text" has no tenses at all, since it is clearly a substantive or an adjective rather than a verb !

  25. Mark P said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 11:23 am

    @Lieven: I actually received an email notice of a meeting with a preliminary agendum. Of course the person who wrote it was somewhat eccentric (shall we say) in other ways as well.

  26. Trogluddite said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 12:40 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: "But there's more…"
    Oh yes, certainly; I didn't intend to imply that the temptation to "naturalise" a word would always predominate. For example; for the words under discussion, it's clear that the original declensions are more likely to have been preserved where the word has a technical meaning within a limited domain; a surveyor measures relative to a "datum" and a biologist cultivates organisms in a "medium".

    So the need for precision when communicating technical details seems to act as a preservative, and adherence to the original model appears more likely to be lost when a new gloss introduces a novel referent (or when the word is adopted by a new domain, such as computer programmers' use of "data" as a mass noun.) No doubt the experts here at LL could point out many other such influences. Attempting to gain social advantage by exaggerating one's cleverness would be my best guess for "cacti" and "octopi" (I don't pretend for a moment that it has never influenced me!)

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    January 5, 2019 @ 3:43 pm

    Re "cacti", it has never occurred to me that there might be any other plural of "cactus". Certainly when discussed on (e.g.,) Gardeners' Question Time, I am reasonably confident that "cacti" (pronounced /kæk-taɪ/) is the invariably used plural form. The LPD offers it before offering "cactuses" as the plural form, whilst the OED does not even admit of its existence, writing (under "cactus") "The Linnæan genus Cactus is now subdivided into about 20 genera, as Cereus, Echinocactus, Opuntia, etc., constituting the family Cactaceæ, all of which however are popularly cactuses."

  28. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 6, 2019 @ 3:03 am

    Whole "octopi" is etymologically wrong (stem "octopod-"), I'm not sure what's supposed to be wrong with "cacti"?

  29. Trogluddite said,

    January 6, 2019 @ 10:43 am

    @Andreas Johansson
    I don't think anyone was suggesting that "cacti" was "wrong", merely that it's an example of latinate pluralisation commonly heard in vernacular English, in contrast with the "anglicised" forms of "medium/media".

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