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Not a single definition for 'singular'

The word "singular" doesn't raise any eyebrows when we're talking about grammar. However, there's some concern about how the word is being used outside the grammar world.

A listener named Brian recently wrote to us about the use of singular as "a pretentious version" of single. He was under the impression that singular only means single in the context of grammar, and otherwise means unique.

"However, just in the past year, I've heard [singular] used more and more often to mean single, usually in a more formal context. I wonder if the horse is already out of the barn on this one," he says.

Brian, we can't even see the horse at this point. 

The meaning of singular as individual, one or single has been part of the word's history for quite some time.

Singular comes into English from Old French in the 14th century. When it first comes into the language, its meaning is along the lines of living alone or apart from the herd. That's where we get early meanings of singular as one. By the 16th century, we start to see evidence of singular meaning unique or one-of-a-kind, which we still see today.

So the history of singular doesn't really give us definitive answers about its definition, but there people out there with definitive views.

In Garner's Modern American Usage Guide, Bryan Garner makes a clear distinction. He says single means "only one in number or unmarried,"and that singular means "exceptional, remarkable, one-of-a-kind, or odd."

When it comes to published writing, it would seem that editors are trying to keep the distinction that Garner makes in his guide. However, there's some blurriness when it comes to spoken language.

Here's an example from NBC's Meet the Press: "I think it basically shows that if you have a singular focus and you are really prioritizing, you can get results." And here's another from CNN's Crossfire: "We're not close enough to identify a group or a singular person."

So how are dictionaries handling the matter? We checked both Merriam-Webster's and the American Heritage Dictionary. Both have the first definition of singular as "one, only one, or individual" and the second meaning as "one-of-a-kind or unique."

Are there other words on your radar that have some blurry usage rules? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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