*What's the Plural of 'Medium'?

Whenever I need to use a word that has more than one correct form, say for example past-tense forms like dreamed vs. dreamt or plural forms like fungi vs. funguses, I check the dictionary. For every word with multiple correct options, dictionaries always have a preference. And they indicate it by listing their preferred form first.

For example, in Webster’s New World College Dictionary under fungus, the first thing you see is “fungi or funguses,” meaning the dictionary prefers fungi.

So you can imagine my shock when I looked up the noun medium and saw that the dictionary’s first choice for a plural was not media but mediums. Had I stopped there, I would have forever believed that this Webster’s -- the dictionary I have to follow in most of my work -- would have me say, “Print is one news medium, digital is another, and together they’re two different types of mediums.”

That’s completely counter to conventional wisdom. Most people who pay attention to this stuff will tell you without hesitation that one news medium and another news medium together form two news media. (Which is different from a fortune-teller type “spiritual medium,” which in the plural is “mediums.”) Yet, in the very place that this dictionary indicates its preferred forms, it seemed to be saying that I should opt for mediums over media.

Good thing I kept reading. Under its third definition for the noun medium, Webster’s says: "3. pl. usually media: any means, agency, or instrumentality, specif., a means of communication that reaches the general public and carries advertising.”

In other words, the preferred plural indicated at the beginning of the listing wasn't the same as the preferred plural for one specific definition of the word. So, yes, if you consult two fortune tellers you talked to two spiritual mediums. But if you read a newspaper and a magazine, you consulted two types of media.

As for whether media is necessarily plural, that depends on its use. Media is sometimes treated as a plural, News media are covering this thoroughly, and sometimes treated as a singular, The media is going to have a field day.

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4 Responses to “*What's the Plural of 'Medium'?”

  1. I am speaking of painting medium.. Oils , acrylics, watercolour etc what is the proper plural for medium in this case?

  2. In the case of painting medium such as watercolour, oil and acrylics what is the plural?

  3. Short answer: I'd use "media." Long answer: Dictionaries leave a lot of room for debate on this one (believe it or not). See "media" at both m-w.com and websters.yourdictionary.com. They're both clear that "media" is the preferred plural when talking about news outlets and that "mediums" is the preferred form when talking about shirt sizes or clairvoyants. But for art materials, you could almost interpret their definitions to mean they prefer "mediums." Still, my feeling is that 99% of people will think "mediums" is an error. Plus, "mixed-media" is such a standard term in the art world. For both those reasons, I'd go with "media" for the plural.

  4. It's somewhat amusing/interesting that you were so taken aback, at first. Artists also use different mediums, and of course waves travel through different mediums. Both cases are just as often or even preferably in many contexts with "s". The whole idea of communication media is but a small part of the overall meaning of "medium."