The Writer’s Toolbox – The Media is the Message

Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “The medium is the message.” But try to turn that iconic phrase into plural form, and it just sounds odd. The media are the message? The media is the message? This week we’ll take a look at medium, media, and how an originally plural form is making its way back into the singular world.

Medium, Media
Unless you’re talking about clairvoyants (“mediums”), the plural of medium is media.

Example A: Today’s art class will examine the medium of clay.
Example B: Tomorrow’s art class will deal with mixed media creations.
but note Example C: She has gone on retreat with other psychics and mediums.

The plural form media is also used to describe multiple means of communication:
Example D: I’m an advocate for greater representation of women of colour in news media.

Single Again
In Examples A, B, and D, media is clearly plural in nature and form. But what about when media is used as a subject rather than an object, and refers to multiple communications organs?news, television, radio, magazines?all in one set? To revisit our original question, is it “The media is…” or “The media are…”?

Some argue that in these cases, media should take a singular rather than a plural verb. Over the past decades media has become more widely accepted as a mass noun, i.e., a noun that refers to a large group as a single entity (other examples of mass nouns include “crowd” and “class”). As such, it would take a singular verb.

The Chicago Manual of Style editors admit that “’media’ is often construed as a singular noun,” while Garner’s Modern American Usage outright states that this usage “must be accepted as standard” (Garner, 2009, p.531)

And although The Canadian Style advises that writers should “use media as the plural,” it recognizes that “usage is evolving.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t give examples of media in a context where the word could otherwise be understood as a singular-form mass noun.

In most circles, neither of the following examples would be seen as wrong, though some might consider Example E to be too modern and trendy or Example F to be stilted.

Example E: The media takes up the challenge.
Example F: The media take up the challenge.

But note: the following example is incorrect:

Example G (incorrect): Radio, television, and other medias take up the challenge. If you use media as a singular-form mass noun, don’t use “medias” as the plural.

Is the media the message, then? The key, as always, is to know your audience and to be consistent in your writing.

Garner, Bryan. Garner’s Modern American Usage, Third Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.