or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

One Or The Other

At the top of Slate.com's home page sits a collection of new stories with little illustrations and headlines, which are not usually the same as the actual titles for the stories: they're just meant to make you want to read the stories themselves, so they're pithy (five to ten words) and enticing.

It will vanish in a day or two, but here's the home-page headline for this story about newsworthy bacteria-laden spinach:

Is Evil Bacteria Sneaking Into Our Plants?

Oh, for the love of Pete.

I know that the word "bacteria" is often used as it's singular. I don't have to like it, but that's the way the language goes. However, that headline is just wrong, no matter which way you slice it.

If "bacteria" is meant to be plural in that context, then obviously you have to use a plural verb: "Are Evil Bacteria Sneaking Into Our Plants?" If, on the other hand, it's being used as if it were singular, then you, under the rules of standard English, have to use an article: "Is An Evil Bacteria Sneaking Into Our Plants?" (It's true that the rules of headline-writing are not necessarily those of normal English, but just try replacing "bacteria" with "cat"/"cats" and see what happens.)

We do have words in English that show no change from singular to plural--"fish" and "moose", for instance. But the rules that denote each number still apply: "Our car almost hit a moose", "Moose don't make good pets." You're required to indicate which is which. You can't split the difference.


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