Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Criterion Criterion

Grammar is constantly in flux. In his "Twenty-Four Word Notes," which was published in 2003, David Foster Wallace insisted on the distinction between who and that:
There's a very basic rule: Who and whom are the relative pronouns for people; that and which are the rel. pronouns for everything else.
For me, too, it's the man who was driving the bus, never the man that was driving the bus. (I wouldn't call the latter usage a mistake, although like Wallace I tend to view it as a class-marker.) Wallace qualified this advice with "As of 2003," and it does seem to me that using that to refer to people has become much more common over the past dozen years. I wonder if it will ever sound archaic to say the man who was driving the bus. (Probably it will, when buses drive themselves.)

My own problem with who/that arises when talking about animals. A certain sympathy inclines me to call them who. My cat? Definitely a who. And in the children's book Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type, the word that always makes me frown. Those cows can type, for crying out loud! Give them a who! (Some pedant copyeditor probably put a stop to it.)

A train that left the station a long time ago was the use of agenda as a plural noun. Nowadays, agenda is a singular noun that means, more or less, a list. Once upon a time, an individual item on such a list would have been called an agendum, but today it would be eccentric to use that word. Now it's an agenda item.

Criteria, on the other hand, is still plural. A person looking for an apartment might have ten, twenty or a hundred criteria, but if he only has one then it's a criterion. Some people seem unaware that criterion exists, so they say Now let's look at the first criteria or This criteria is shorter than that one. People who habitually use the word criterion initially hear these statements as utter nonsense. (This giraffes is shorter than that one?). Naturally the intended meaning comes through a half-beat later, but it's apt to be accompanied by an unkind mental note about the speaker's vocabulary.

Sometimes people try to defend the use of criteria as a singular noun by analogy to the way agenda and data have become singular nouns. The analogy doesn't work, though, because agendum and datum have both disappeared, whereas criterion has not. As long as singular and plural forms are both available, there's no choice but to match them to singular and plural verbs and pronouns. Hence the usage note in the American Heritage Fourth Edition:
Like the analogous etymological plurals agenda and datacriteria is widely used as a singular form. Unlike them, however, it is not yet acceptable in that use.
This is good advice, because when a listener does perceive this error, it is perceived as catastrophic. Someday criterion will be joining agendum in the obsolete category, but right now it doesn't pay to be out in front on this one.


jeff said...

Dear Sir,
You are fighting an unwinnable battle. The eventual singularity of criteria is a certainty.

If i were trying to be clever (and failing), i'd say "we're native English speakers during the interregnum in which criteria's momentum has not yet overtaken that of criterion" and that "i do not believe there will or can be multiple interregna, nor do i believe there need be more than one measurement of momenta."

JasonZimba said...

I think you're right (if I understand correctly!) that a single measurement of the momentum suffices when it comes to this issue - a word on its way out ain't never gonna turn around and come back. The timescale is an interesting question, though. DFW's who/that distinction seems to be collapsing more quickly than I would have expected, maybe more quickly than he expected. "Criterion" is still used in high-status channels like NY Times, academia, etc. - but who knows for how long.

I should say that the Am. Heritage usage note I quoted above is from the Fourth Edition, (c) 2000, a long time ago now! Interestingly, the usage note in the Fifth Edition (2012) says:

"Like phenomenon, criterion is a singular noun. The plural is generally criteria, although criterions is sometimes used."

Whoa nelly! Who invited "criterions" to the party?? I have never even heard that word used before. Maybe criteria has some new competition.

nancy said...

I'm totally with you on who/that, and on who for any creature that can type! You lost me, though, at the idea that an incorrect use of 'criteria' could be catastrophic. I suspect most people would barely notice.

JasonZimba said...

I think you are right that most people in the United States would barely notice an incorrect use of 'criteria.' I only said that people who *do* notice will find the error catastrophic. Admittedly that is a hyperbolic word choice! But I made no claim about frequencies.

The odds of somebody noticing the error are probably low in everyday speech, but in high-status channels the odds go up. In absolute terms, of course, few people participate in those channels, and those who do participate in them might not care what others think. Consider my advice to be directed toward those who worry about this kind of thing.

My own maxim tends to be 'When in Rome....' So, I will use a high-status register, or my native idioms, or what have you depending on the situation I'm in. I consider it a life skill to know the norms of high-status use of language, but the real reason I pay attention to grammar is that I enjoy the subject. Mathematicians enjoy structure, and their writing tends to illustrate that (sometimes to a fault!). Also, I think because I speak only English, and I'm denied the pleasures of expressing myself in other languages, the closest I can get to that is moving among dialects - practicing them, trying them on for size and tweaking their noses from time to time.