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'Phenomenon' or 'Phenomena'

One is singular; the other is plural.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
phenomenon or phenomena

If you watched the children’s program Sesame Street growing up, you probably recognized the little bit I sang earlier. “Phenomenon, do do do do do.” Well, it turns out, I was remembering it wrong. In my memory, they were saying “phenomena,” but when I watched the clip on YouTube while I was working on this article, I realized they were saying a nonsense word: “manamanah.” Still, whenever I heard the word “phenomena,” I think of that Sesame Street skit, and I’m nearly certain I’ve heard other people refer to it too. And if you need a good laugh, the video is still funny after all these years.

Either way, “phenomena” and “manamanah” are fun words to say. I actually plan to talk with the Savvy Psychologist in a couple of months about why some words sound so much more pleasant than others, but for now, I’ll just help you remember the spellings of “phenomena” and “phenomenon” because they’re easy words to confuse.

Today, “phenomenon” means “a fact or a thing that happens,” and we usually use it to describe something extraordinary or at least unusual. For example, 

Ball lightning is one phenomenon I've never seen.”

“Phenomenon” comes to English from Greek through Latin. According to Etymonline, in Greek the word meant “that which is seen or appears,” so essentially the same thing it means today.

The singular is 'phenomenon.' The plural is 'phenomena.'

Its meaning hasn’t changed, and you still make it plural like you make Greek words plural. The plural is “phenomena.”

It’s just like another word that came to English directly from Greek: “criterion.” That’s the singular form—“criterion”— just like “phenomenon” is singular, and it’s plural is “criteria,” which ends with an A just like the plural “phenomena.” 

He outlined all the criteria they were going to use to make their selection.

There are more strange phenomena on earth than you can possibly imagine.

Quick and Dirty Tip: To help you remember that “phenomenon” is the singular form of the word, remember that the singular form has an O near the end—in that “non” syllable—just like the word “one.” One. Singular.  

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times bestseller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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