One phenomena too many (Mistake #58)

As regular followers will know, I’m all for branching out of your writing comfort zone and researching subjects you know little or nothing about. I probably best make this point in an early post – Mistake No. 12.

Years and years ago – late nineties, I think – I wrote an article about electronic voice phenomena, which I guess could be considered an example of branching out of my comfort zone. EVP are fragments of sound recordings claimed by some paranormal researchers to originate from the spirits of the deceased. The magazine I wrote the piece for is a long-forgotten, long-folded publication which was called, possibly, Beyond the Realm, and I think I was operating on a promise of about £40 per 1,000 words. To someone relatively new to the game, as I was then, this was fine. Besides, I quite enjoyed writing about the world of the weird, also contributing regularly to the still-going-strong Prediction Magazine for, I think, £50 per 1,000 words.

(I imagine rates have since increased for this kind of writing, but expect they remain at the lowish end of the scale. Even a highly regarded ‘alternative’ title such as Fortean Times magazine doesn’t pay a generous fee – often under £150 per 1,000 words, last I heard. The paranormal and the unexplained are niche areas, and I doubt you can get rich writing about them – but, on the plus side, the magazines devoted to them are often very fertile ground for new writers.)

There were two reasons I moved on. The first was financial. The second was a burgeoning scepticism – which probably coincided with my increased interest in matters medical (and, hence, Properly Scientific). I’d been too believing and unquestioning – perhaps due to the market demands (although the FT remains an exception in this regard). A childhood excited by the world which Arthur C Clarke opened up took a long time to grow out of, I guess, but eventually belief gave way to disbelief. Once I’d learned about the human brain’s glorious capacity to self-deceive – to sense the benefits of homeopathy which aren’t there, to see faces or find meaning in clouds, to read significance in a horoscope, and yes, to hear meaningful words in scratches of random noise or interference – there was no way back, and I’m glad of it. Truth is more fascinating than fiction.

This last week, I’ve been away in Wales. I’ve returned to a press invite for a new product launch, beautifully and professionally printed, which implores me to be “part of the phenomena”, and also to two papers (both excellent, I might add), from students who, in one of those curious examples of synchronicity that I may once have written about, both refer to “this phenomena” – the ‘phenomena’ in question being one and the same.

This all reminded me of my decade-old EVP article, and I stopped for a moment to wonder whether in writing and researching it, I learned of the plurality of the word ‘phenomena’. Perhaps I knew of it before, of course, but pondering on I further wondered how it might be possible to write about ‘alternative phenomena’ without appreciating the most fundamental thing about them – that there are more than one.

Treating ‘phenomena’ as a singular is a common mistake, and I see it regularly, among students of all levels, but I’ve never considered it worthy of a blog post before; surely no editor would ever punish it, after all. Although there was an element of light-hearted loss of patience in my decision to reverse that view with this post – blimey, guys, not another ‘phenomena’! – it then struck me as being perhaps indicative of a greater issue.

Something I hear a lot from new writers is that they love words and they love to read. Good. Both are important. But surely anyone who loves to read will come across the not uncommon words ‘phenomenon’ and ‘phenomena’ regularly enough to see the distinction, and indeed that the former exists? Won’t someone who loves words simply come to learn, at least by osmosis, that one phenomenon and two phenomena are both right, and that one phenomena or perhaps even two phenomenons are as wrong as one houses or two car? Or – and I write sincerely – am I missing something?

This is all nominally about spelling / vocabulary and grammar, but the more I think about it the more I think it’s actually about reading. I wrote about the importance of reading in Mistake No. 25 but that only touches upon the point I’m making here. It’s how you read, too, that matters.

Are you noticing the spelling of words? Are you asking enough questions of the words you read? I appreciate there’s a lot to think about when you read – absorbing the information, enjoying the experience, and so on – but individual words are important too. Stop when a word jars, or when it challenges your assumption. Look it up, and learn.

For if you write ‘one phenomena’ and yet read through ‘one phenomenon’ without blinking – as you surely must have if you read a lot – then a rethink about how you approach reading may really, really help your spelling, your vocabulary and elements of your grammar too.

Comments 1

  • Alex
    My apologies for coming to your Blog so late!
    I do agree with your comments – and I still shout at the television when anyone says 'less' instead of 'fewer'! My only concern as a writer is when/whether to point out grammatic shortfall. I am sure that someone has pointed out that any such letter (or one pointing out typo errors) is bound to contain more errors than the original.

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