Media vs. Medium vs. Mediums: How to Choose the Right Word

Only One Can Speak to the Dead

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Jason Howie

The words "media," "medium," and "mediums" have a wide range of meanings and usages, some of which are tightly linked and some of which are completely separate. All can refer to the material used by an artist to create a work of art ("My favorite medium is acrylic paint."). "Medium," however, can also describe relative size (neither large nor small), while "the media" generally relates to electronic outlets for news and entertainment. Yet another meaning of the word "medium" is a person who can (or claims to) communicate with the dead.

How to Use Media

The word "media" is complex, because its meaning has changed dramatically over a relatively short period of time. It started out as the plural of the word "medium," meaning "intermediate or middle," and was also used to describe multiple artistic materials ("I work with many media, including paint, clay, and metal").

Around the 1920's, the word "media" was first used to describe outlets for communication, and the term "mass media" was coined. Over the decades, the term became ubiquitous, and was used to describe a variety of different means of mass communication; examples include the "news media," "entertainment media," and "social media."

Technically, the word "media" should be used only as the plural of the word "medium." But in recent years, the word "media" (like "data" and "agenda") has come to be treated as singular in certain contexts (especially in American English). Many publishers are comfortable with using the word "media" in both the singular and the plural ("The media are going to love this story!").

How to Use Medium

"Medium" has multiple meanings, each quite distinct from the others. In most cases it is used as a noun, but it can also be used as an adjective for some uses.

  • It is the singular form of "media," and, as such, can indicate either a single artistic material or a single outlet for communication ("The Internet is an important medium for communication").
  • "Medium" also means intermediate: neither large nor small. For example, "The suspect was of medium height."
  • A medium can be an agency for doing something or achieving a goal; for example, "Technology is a medium for change."
  • A medium can be a substance which surrounds or holds something else; for example, "the petri dish contained a medium used to grow cancer cells."
  • Mediums are also individuals who can or claim to be able to communicate with the dead; for example, "the medium looked into her crystal ball and saw my deceased husband."

How to Use Mediums

"Mediums" is a plural noun, and thus has more limited use than "medium." It is also limited by the fact that while a single outlet for communication may be referred to as a "medium," multiple outlets for communication are always referred to as "media." Thus, the term "mediums" is the plural form of "medium" when "medium" is used as a noun—unless the word "medium" is used to refer to an outlet for communication.

Examples

It's tricky to show examples of every type of usage of "media," "medium," and "mediums," but general rules of thumb make it easier to select the right word.

  • "Media" as both singular and plural: "The media" is a collective noun referring to the "mass media" (television, newspapers, etc.). "Media" may refer either to multiple communication outlets or to a single such outlet. At the same time, however, "media" is the plural of "medium." Thus, "The media is having a field day," is correct—but so is "I work in several media including clay and fiber."
  • "Medium" as a noun or adjective: In most cases, "medium" is used as an adjective to describe an intermediate quality; for example, a medium-sized drink, medium-well- done steak, or a "happy medium" between two extremes. In some cases, however, it is used as a noun to mean either a means of transmission of a force or effect or an enveloping substance. Thus, "the sound travels through the medium of the air" is correct, as is "the best medium for growing that plant is commercial potting soil."
  • "Mediums" as a plural noun: "Mediums" is the plural of "medium," unless "medium" refers to an outlet of communication. Thus, while it is correct to say "Jane's experiment involved placing bacteria in several mediums to see if they would grow," it is incorrect to say "Several mediums carried the story about the car crash in their local news segment."

    How to Remember the Differences

    • "Mediums," like the vast majority of English plurals, ends in the letter "s," while the other two terms do not. Thus, "mediums" is always a plural noun.
    • In general, if the topic is communication or the arts, "media" is used. If the subject is art or science, "mediums" is more likely to be correct.
    • If you're describing something as of intermediate size or quality and you need an adjective, choose "medium."
    • If you need someone to communicate with a dead loved one, always choose a medium.