Media, Medium, and 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 that are completely separate. All can refer to the material used by an artist to create a work of art, as in "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 claims to be able 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, including paint, clay, metal, and so on.

Around the 1920s, the word "media" was first used to describe communication outlets, 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, including 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, "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 as both a singular and a plural.

How to Use "Medium"

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

  • It is the singular form of "media" and, as such, can indicate either a single artistic material or a single communication outlet: "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 that surrounds or holds something else. For example, "The petri dish contained a medium used to grow cancer cells."
  • A medium is also an individual who claims to have the ability 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 is more limited in use than "medium." It is also limited by the fact that a single outlet for communication may be referred to as a "medium," but 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 "medium" is used to refer to an outlet for communication.

Examples

It's tricky to show examples of every type of "media," "medium," and "mediums" usage, 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" (e.g., television and newspapers). "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 steak doneness, 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, although 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 segments."

    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 of intermediate size or quality and you need an adjective, choose "medium."
    • If you need someone to communicate with a loved one who's passed on, always choose a "medium."

    Sources