Letters to NYT on Misuse of ‘Bacteria’
1) In your report on the poisoning of the Chilean ex-leader (p A6, December 8), Alexei Barrionuevo writes that Carmen Frei’s father ‘may have been injected with a bacteria produced by Eugenio Berrios’, and goes on to state that ‘Mr Berrios had developed bacteria that was administered to Mr. Frei…’
But ‘bacteria’ is the plural form: the correct term in both cases would have been ‘bacterium’. Such a misunderstanding was echoed in your Corrections of December 6, where you write of ‘a drug-resistant bacteria strain found in Africa’. [December 8, 2009]
2) I enjoyed the article by Erica Rex on the threatened frogs (Science Times, October 5), but felt somewhat let down by the impreciseness of the references to extinction (‘driven to extinction’, ‘laid waste’, ‘had gone extinct’, ‘mass die-off’ etc.)
Is it possible that some of the frogs had a natural genetic resistance to chytrid, and could thus pass on that resistance to their offspring, thus showing evolution in action? Dr. Graber stated that he and his colleagues could not wait for ‘survival of the fittest’, but it would have been enlightening to read whether that process had happened anywhere. Especially as the infection pattern was described as one that imitated that of ‘human epidemics’ – which many human beings survive, of course.
And ‘bacteria’ is a plural form. When Ms. Rex writes ‘Dr. Vredenburg and his colleagues are inoculating chytrid-infected frogs with a bacteria..’, it should read ‘a bacterium’. [June 6, 2010]
3) May I take this opportunity to remind your editors (again) that ‘bacteria’ is a plural form, the singular form being ‘bacterium’?
“..Haiti has not seen Vibrio cholerae, the bacteria that causes cholera, for 50 years” (page A5, October 23)
Also, “Dr. Vredenburg and his colleagues are inoculating chytrid-infected frogs with a bacteria..” (Science Times, October 5) [October 23, 2010]
4) I thought we had fixed the ‘bacterium/bacteria’ problem after an excellent article a couple of weeks ago. But no. Randal Archibold, in his reports from Haiti this week, and today, William Neuman writing about cheese (B1), both treat ‘bacteria’ as a singular noun. More rules issued, please! [November 20, 2010]
5) In Kenneth Chang’s obituary of Thomas Eisner (A22, today), he writes: ‘Dr. Eisner was actually studying a different insect – orb-weaving spiders -…..”. Spiders are not insects, but araneids, a genus of arachnids.
And there was another incidence [see my previous correspondence] of ‘bacteria’ being used as a singular form in the article ‘Deaths of 9 Alabama Patients Are Studied…” (A19) – “… were sickened by the bacteria, called Serratia narcescens, which is most commonly found…” [March 31, 2011]
6) In ‘National Briefing’ (South), p A16 today, the main text used ‘bacteria’ correctly as a plural, but the headline got it wrong (‘…if Bacteria in Lab is Tied..’) [April 5, 2011]
7) Timothy Williams (National Briefing, today, A 17) writes: ‘… the bacteria was introduced..’, and ‘..the bacteria has been found..’.
But, since Baruch Blumberg, in his obituary yesterday (A21) was quoted as saying : ‘If we found something more like a virus or a bacteria…’, no wonder your reporters are confused!
The question is – when are Times editors going to take a stand? [April 8, 2011]
Response: Actually, we have taken a stand. The entry in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage on bacteria reads as follows:
bacteria is plural; the singular is bacterium.
We never change direct quotes so Mr. Blumberg’s words use of the word would have been printed as he said it. But the error in the National Briefing column was ours, and I thank you for calling our attention to it.
Joan P. Nassivera
Acting Senior Editor
[April 8, 2011]
Our copy desk chief for the Science section groaned when I sent her your note. She’s correcting it online.
So I’m glad to find out that we have not adopted some bizarre style. Now it’s a matter of getting people to follow the style and correct usage we do have!
Greg [July 26, 2011]
8) Gardiner Harris, in his piece on the E. Coli outbreak (A4, today), writes: “… public health officials in the United States caution that the bacteria is not as scary…..”
I know your journalists’ task is not made easier when professional medical persons make the same mistake, and you have to quote their words verbatim. Later in the piece, Dr. Tarr, a professor of pediatrics, is quoted as saying: “… then you give that bacteria a competitive advantage…” Shame on you, Dr. Tarr!
Several times recently, I have read in the Times constructions such as ‘strain of bacteria’ (as in the statement attributed to a Chinese laboratory on page 9 today). I believe such a construction should strictly be ‘strain of bacterium’. [June 3, 2011]
9) In today’s Times:
“The bacteria has also caused outbreaks tied to vegetables…” (William Neuman, p A9)
“… the bacteria has incubated for as long as 12 days…” (Judy Dempsey, p A9), and
“..caused by a rare form of E. coli bacteria..” (William Neuman, again)
Why is it not possible for your journalists and editors to get this right? Are they not required to read your style guide? [June 4, 2011]
10) In David Jolly’s article on p 10, today, (“78-Year-Old Woman Stricken with E. Coli Dies in France”): ‘The bacteria causes acute diarrhea, and, in severe cases, kidney failure.’
Bacterium, please! This saga goes on and on….. [July 4, 2011]
11) In ‘Lawsuits and Intrigue Over 3M Diagnostic Test’ (B1, today), Barry Meier writes:
‘.. a diagnostic test to be marketed by 3M that detected a highly resistant bacteria..”, and
‘… offered a faster way to identify hospital patients who were carriers of the bacteria … MRSA..’
The singular form is ‘bacterium’. This must be the tenth time I have had to point this out to you. I wonder why it is so difficult for your journalists and editors to get this right! Should I contact the Public Editor? [July 22, 2011]
12) In ‘Evolution Right Under Our Noses’ (D1, today), Carl Zimmer writes: ‘The bacteria, known as Klebsiella pneumoniae, is often found in hospitals’. As I have frequently pointed out to you before, the singular form is ‘bacterium’, not ‘bacteria’.
Dear Mr Brock,
I am taking advantage of your message to me the other day to point out a systemic grammatical problem at the Times – the use of ‘bacteria’ as a singular noun. You will find a dozen examples of this error that I have alerted to your editorial desk over the past eighteen months or so – the latest today. I did in April receive one sympathetic email from an acting senior editor, Joan Nassivera (which I shall forward to you). It confirmed that The Times Style Guide is explicit about this point. Many of your writers and editors, however, seem not to have read it. [July 26, 2011]
Response: Indeed. And I sent your note to a number of editors, including the senior editor who oversees style. I have sent today’s query, too. Perhaps Mr. Nassivera and I are misreading the stylebook. But as far as I know, we use bacterium for the singular. If I find out the style has been changed, I will let you know.
[July 26, 2011]
13) I have suggested before (see email of June 3, 2011) that your reporters cannot finesse the ‘bacterium/bacteria’ quandary by writing ‘a strain of bacteria’. (They would not write ‘a strain of viruses’, would they?.) Yet William Neuman, on page B3 of the paper on Thursday, August 4, wrote: ‘The outbreak involved a strain of bacteria known as Salmonella Heidelberg, which is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics..’ This particular organism is a variety of an individual bacterium, and thus the sentence should read ‘a strain of the bacterium known as…’ [August 6, 2011]
14) In ‘Cancer’s Secrets Come Into Sharper Focus’ (Science Times, today), George Johnson writes: ‘Last year scientists reported evidence that the Japanese microbiome has acquired a gene for a seaweed-digesting enzyme from a marine bacteria’. It should be ‘bacterium’! [August 16, 2011]
15) In “Ban on E. Coli in Ground Beef Is to Extend to 6 More Strains” (B1, September 13), William Neuman writes: “The bacteria is killed by heating the meat to 160 degrees.” He should, of course, have written ‘bacterium’. [September 23, 2011]
16) “Listeria is a common but dangerous bacteria…”
“The huge outbreak this year in Europe of a rare form of E. coli bacteria…”
“Listeria is a common bacteria that can be found in soil, water,…”
“The Food and Drug Administration said it had found the strain of the bacteria….” [William Neuman, ‘Deaths Rise in Outbreak of Listeria’, B1, September 28, 2011]
17) William J. Broad and Scott Hane, in their article “3 Scientists’ Analysis Disputes F.B.I.’s Closing of Anthrax Case” (NYT today, A1) write: ‘But microbiologists say that the nutrients and additives used to grow Bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacteria, are typically free of tin.’ It should, of course, read ‘the anthrax bacterium’. [October 10, 2011]
18) While the paper seems to be making progress in the ‘bacterium/bacteria’ saga, I was disappointed to read that the infection has taken over another Latin word. In ‘Photos and Reports Offer Scant Clues to a Succession’ (A9, today), Michael Wines writes: ‘Ultimate authority in China resides with the Communist Party, a ruling strata above the government…’ That should, of course, read ‘stratum’. [October 15, 2011]19) You have been doing so much better with bacterium/bacteria in recent months, but today saw another error. Ian Lovett, in ‘Threat to California Citrus May Finish Backyard Trees’ (A12, today) writes: ‘The bacteria that causes the disease clogs the flow of nutrients…’ Of course, it should be ‘bacterium’. [April 18, 2012]
20) Over the past year, the Times has been much more disciplined in its use of the words ‘bacterium’ and its plural form ‘bacteria’, and I immodestly believe I have to take a lot of the credit for that in my campaign to you.
But I think you still get it wrong occasionally, and today’s leader was an example. It includes the phrases ‘a deadly, drug-resistant form of pneumonia bacteria…’ and ‘ the resistant strain of the bacteria…’, when surely the singular form is called for. If the agent in question were a virus, you would not write ‘a deadly form of viruses’, or ‘the resistant strain of viruses’, would you? You wouldn’t write ‘a form of cancers’, would you?
But if you would, please explain your usage. [August 29, 2012]
21) In ‘Corrections’ today, you state that Saccharomyces ‘is a genus of yeasts, not a bacteria’. That should read ‘bacterium’. (Please see multiple previous emails on this matter.) [November 21, 2012]
Response: Dear Mr. Percy,
Thank you for bringing this to our attention. You are right — it should be bacterium. My editor is working on it now.
Assistant to the Senior Editor, Standards and Corrections [November 21, 2012]
22) In the report today, ‘Citrus Disease With No Cure Is Ravaging Florida’s Groves’ (A1), Lizette Alvarez writes:
“While the bacteria, which causes fruit to turn bitter and drop from the trees when still unripe, affects all citrus fruits…”, and
“And while the bacteria does not harm humans, it devastates trees…”
‘Bacteria’ is the plural form: in both cases the reporter should have written ‘bacterium’. [May 10, 2013]
23) You are slipping back into bad habits!
‘Botulism Threat Found in Infant Formula Ingredients’ (P 10, today)
Should be ‘a type of bacterium’, and ‘a rare but serious illness caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.’ Not ‘bacteria’, which is the plural form. [August 4, 2013]
24) In her article, ‘Food Supplier Grapples With Frequent Recalls’ (B1, today), Stephanie Strom writes ” . . .more than 600 cases of cyclosporiasis, an intestinal disease caused by Cyclospora cayetanensis, a bacteria that is transmitted. . .”
It should read ‘a bacterium’, the singular version of the word. [August 30, 2013]
25) In Gardiner Harris’s report today ( http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/31/health/12-percent-of-us-spice-imports-contaminated-fda-finds.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0 ), the reporter writes:
“The federal authorities also found that nearly 7 percent of spice imports examined by federal inspectors were contaminated with salmonella, a toxic bacteria that can cause severe illness in humans.
It should read “.. a toxic bacterium”, as “bacteria” is the plural form. [October 31, 2013]
26) In your article on London today
the map seems to have moved ‘Westminster’ over to where ‘Hammersmith and Fulham’ are.
And in the piece about cheese-aging:
Stephanie Strom and Kim Severson write: “after Listeria monocytogenes, a type of bacteria that can cause fatal illnesses,. . “
Of course, it should read ‘a type of bacterium’… [June 11, 2014]
27) In the following story by Elisabetta Povoledo (Times, December 4, A10), ‘bacteria’ should read ‘bacterium’.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/04/world/europe/amid-bugs-hail-floods-and-bacteria-italian-olives-take-a-beating.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3As%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A11%22%7D&module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3As%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A11%22%7D&_r=0 [December 5, 2014]
28) In your item under ‘Olympics’ in today’s Sports Briefing (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/sports/olympics/rios-sailing-site-is-contaminated.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0 )
‘a drug-resistant superbacteria’ should read ‘a drug-resistant superbacterium’. [December 16, 2014]
29) You are slipping over ‘bacteria’ and ‘bacterium’ again. See:
First paragraph: ‘a deadly bacteria’; tenth paragraph: ‘a dangerous bacteria’. Should be ‘bacterium’. [March 13, 2015]
30) In your story on Listeria today, you write ‘bacteria’ twice when you meant ‘bacterium’! [June 13, 2015]
31) In the article on p A18 today:
Your reporters write:
“Five water-cooling towers in the South Bronx have been found with the legionella bacteria, which causes the disease . . .”
‘Bacteria’ is a plural noun: it is the bacterium that ’causes the disease’. [August 8, 2015]
32) Just because it’s tucked away in the Arts Section, it doesn’t mean you can get ‘bacterium’ wrong!
See http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/arts/design/yuck-to-wow-explaining-science-and-technology-in-museums.html?ref=todayspaper , where the photographs are described as ‘a fungus-blocking bacteria’, and ‘a good bacteria growing in a wound’. Both should be ‘bacterium’!
[January 11, 2015]
33) In her report of December 22 on Chipotle (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/22/business/chipotle-e-coli-cases-rise-with-5-more-ill-in-midwest.html?_r=0) , Stephanie Strom writes:
“The same bacteria has sickened 53 people in eight other states, nearly all of whom said they had eaten at a Chipotle.” and
“He said both types of the same bacteria were rare — the C.D.C. has seen the E. coli involved in the earlier outbreak only three times previously.”
In both cases, it should read ‘bacterium’. (I thought you had sorted this mistake out . . .) [December 23, 2015]
34) The story on page A8 today was fine, but the lead-in on page 1 got it wrong (‘ . . eggs infected with a bacteria that blocks …’) [February 5, 2016]
35) You have been doing much better with ‘bacteria’ and ‘bacterium’ lately, but in today’s article at
Stephanie Strom slipped up, in writing: “Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but E. coli O121, the one found in the 38 sick people, is a potentially deadly bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration.” Should be ‘bacterium’. [June 1, 2016]
36) In the item ‘The Creature of a Philippine Lagoon’ (Science Times, today), Joanna Klein writes: ‘Instead of eating, bacteria in the creature’s gills helps it suck energy from sulfur.”
It should read ‘help it suck’, as bacteria are plural. (This sentence also contains an unrelated participle, so it should have been completely rewritten.) [April 25, 2017]
37) In the story by Liz Alderman today (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/01/business/france-baby-formula-lactalis.html?ref=todayspaper), the reporter twice uses ‘bacteria’ as a singular form, namely ‘the bacteria in recent milk products was identical’, and ‘the bacteria typically thrives in poor sanitation conditions’. ‘Bacteria’ is the plural form: the singular is ‘bacterium’. Elsewhere in the paper, Gina Kolata gets it right in her report on colon cancer. [February 2, 2018]
38) I thought you had fixed this problem, but it recurs . . .
“But the agency said it was acting out of an abundance of caution after 32 people in 11 states fell sick with a virulent form of E. coli, a bacteria blamed for a number of food-borne outbreaks in recent years.”
‘Bacteria’ is the plural form! Please instruct your writers and editors accordingly. [November 21, 2018]
39) “And there are good reasons to avoid any antibiotic when bacteria is detected in a urine culture in a patient who has no other signs of infection. ” (see https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/15/health/antibiotics-elderly-risks.html)
Should be ‘are detected’: ‘bacteria’ is the plural form of ‘bacterium’. If even your science writers can’t get it right . . . [March 19, 2019]
40) In her report on a migrant girl’s infection (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/29/us/migrant-girl-death.html), Sheri Fink writes: ‘with a common streptococcus bacteria’. As I have pointed out to you a couple of dozen times already, the singular form of ‘bacteria’ is ‘bacterium’. When are you going to get this right? [March 30, 2019]
41) In the printed version of the story about a bacterial outbreak in Britain (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/26/world/europe/uk-bacteria-outbreak-essex.html), a sub-editor added the sub-headline “A usually harmless bacteria on the skin can be fatal in the blood.” It should run, as Iiana Magra no doubt knows, as ‘a usually harmless bacterium . . .’ [June 27, 2019]
42) Even in an article on spelling, you cannot get it right. See https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/10/us/scripps-national-spelling-bee-winners.html?searchResultPosition=1
” . . . staphylococci, the plural of staphylococcus, a kind of bacteria”. It should read ‘a kind of bacterium’. (You wouldn’t write ‘a species of animals’, would you?) [September 12, 2019]
43) Andrew Jacobs writes of ‘a resistant bacteria’. It should, as I have pointed out to you dozens of times, be ‘a resistant bacterium’. When are you going to get this right?
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/25/health/antibiotics-new-resistance.html [December 26, 2019]
44) In her article today on ticks (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/27/climate/covid-coronavirus-lyme-disease.html ) Zoe Schlanger writes:
“The bacteria that causes Lyme disease, by far the most common tick-borne illness in North America, is believed to transmit after the tick has been attached for at least 24 hours . . .”
This should read ‘The bacterium’. ‘Bacteria’ is the plural form.
One day, you will get this right . . . [May 28, 2020]
45) I enjoyed reading today the article on ‘Bacteria-Eating Bacteria’ by Katherine J. Wu, with its precise and correct usage of ‘bacterium’ and ‘bacteria’. ( https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/25/science/bacteria-bdellovibrio-predator-prey.html )
But then I turned to Sabrine Imbler’s article about the Spotted Lanternfly (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/21/science/lanternbug-invasive-insect.html ), and read the following: “The spotted lanternfly has three bacterial organs, two known from other planthoppers and one that is new to science, and which Dr. Urban discovered after dissecting hundreds of the bugs. ‘It’s bright yellow and lays across the belly,’ Dr. Urban said. If she can figure out how to block the lanternfly from transferring this bacteria to its eggs, she could stamp out the population without posing a threat to any other insects.”
It should read ‘transferring this bacterium’ (singular). And, by the way, Professor Urban should have said ‘lies across the belly’, not ‘lays across the belly’, but I don’t expect your reporters to correct professors’ grammar. [August 25, 2020]
46) Max Horberry, in his article about legionella today (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/27/health/covid-schools-legionnaires-disease.html) writes: “Legionella, usually Legionella pneumophila, is the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory condition.”
This should read ‘is the bacterium’, as a singular form of the verb ’cause’ appears after it. Perhaps you could introduce Mr. Horberry to the NYT Style Guide? [August 28, 2020]
47) I cannot believe this! In a headline in the Science Times!
‘Lethal Chimp Disease is Linked to a Bacteria’ (p D3, today)
It should be ‘Bacterium’, the singular form. What do your sub-editors do if they don’t look out for errors like this? Maybe they even ‘corrected’ it to the wrong form! For James Gorman uses ‘bacterium’ properly in his text. He must be appalled . . . [February 9, 2021]
48) In Jason Horowitz’s article ‘Send in the Bugs’ (see https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/30/arts/bacteria-cleaning-michelangelo-medici-restoration.html), he twice refers to ‘a bacteria’. It should, of course, be ‘a bacterium’, as your copy-editors should know by now. I have pointed this out to you dozens of times. [May 31, 2021]
49) In the printed version of the article in today’s Science Times (‘Subway Swabbers Find a Microbe Jungle’: see https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/26/science/microbes-subway-metasub-mason.html), a caption referred to ‘relative abundance of the bacteria Micrococcus luteus, which contributes . . .’ As the form of the verb ‘contributes’ confirms, this is a singular entity that is being described, and it should read ‘bacterium’. For some reason, the on-line version runs as follows: ‘ . . . relative abundance of the taxa, in this case, Micrococcus luteus.’ Again, this should be a singular form, i.e. ‘taxon’, not ‘taxa’.
This follows up my email from yesterday, pointing out the same mistake. [June 1, 2021]
50) In Carl Zimmer’s article in the Science Times today (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/10/science/black-death.html), he writes:
” In the mid-1300s, a species of bacteria spread by fleas and rats swept across Asia and Europe, causing deadly cases of bubonic plague.”, and
” Monica Green, an independent historian based in Phoenix, speculated that the Black Death might have been caused by two strains of the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which could have caused different levels of devastation.”
In both cases, he should have written ‘bacterium’, not ‘bacteria’, as ‘bacteria’ is the plural form.
When will your writers and editors get this right? (I have been writing to you about this for over ten years.) [February 15, 2022]
51) You are letting it happen again . . .
In Sharon Otterman’s article on Legionnaires’ disease today (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/25/nyregion/legionnaires-outbreak-nyc.html), she writes of “the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease”, and later reports: “The bacteria was later discovered growing in the hotel’s air-conditioning system”.
As I have pointed out to you dozens of times, ‘bacteria’ is the plural form. In both cases she should have written ‘bacterium’.
Please advise Ms. Otterman, and all your journalists, of the correct usage. [May 26, 2022]
52) In her article on ticks today (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/26/nyregion/tick-diseases-new-york.html), Jesse Mckinley writes:
” Researchers have also found more ticks carrying a bacteria, borrelia miyamotoi, which can cause a disease which resembles tick-borne relapsing fever, linked to backwoods, parasite-infested cabins.”
But ‘bacteria’ is plural, as I have pointed out to you dozens of times. It should read ‘a bacterium’. [June 30, 2022]
53) Carl Zimmer’s article on bacteria today (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/23/science/giant-bacterium.html) was overall sound (e.g. “each bacterium typically carries a loop of DNA . . .”), but it contained two mistakes in the use of plurals. Zimmer writes: “Living inside surgeonfish, the bacteria grows”, when it should be ‘bacterium’, and he also refers to ‘the green algae’, when it should read ‘the green alga’, as ‘algae’ is the plural form.
Incidentally, in today’s Quick Crossword, the clue for 6 Across makes the same mistake, offering “It turns a pond green” as a pointer to ‘ALGAE’. [July 5, 2022]
54) Just when I thought you were making progress in the Bacterium/Bacteria struggle, a new problem has arisen. In https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/28/science/pollination-algae-crustacean.html, Annie Roth writes about ‘fertilizing an algae’, ‘the algae’s stick spermantia, its equivalent of pollen’, and ‘The algae provides the isopods . . .’ One of the photographs describes ‘Spermatia of G. gracilis, a red algae’.
In each case, the term should be ‘alga’. ‘Alga’ is singular: ‘algae’ is the plural form.
For your information, I have posted a full record of my letters to you on this subject over the past 13 years, at http://www.coldspur.com/reviews/the-great-bacterium-bacteria-battle/. I think all your editors should read it. [August 9, 2022]