Criteria vs Criterion: What Is Difference?

Let’s talk about criteria vs. criterion. “Criteria” is a noun typically used to refer to standards or rules of judgment. To be most correct, if you want to speak of “criteria” singularly, you should say “criterion.” Although this rule may sound odd, many other words, such as “datum,” follow it! 

A lightbulb and the text "Criteria - plural, Criterion - singular"

How Did “Criteria” And “Criterion” Originate? 

Criterion comes from the Greek kritḗrion, meaning “a standard,” from kritēs, “judge,” from krinein, “to decide.”  The word critic and related words such as critical and criticism are all based on the same root. 

A graphic showing an old man in a toga from Greek times and the caption describing the origin of the word "Criterion:Criterion comes from the Greek kritḗrion, meaning “a standard,” from kritēs, “judge,” from krinein, “to decide.” "

As you may have known, English is a language borrows from others, such as Greek and Latin. Sometimes, we adjust our Grammar rules to reflect those of the language we are pulling from. This happens a lot with plural nouns.

English grammarians particularly liked Latin and Greek, which is why their sentence rules are often used. This is especially true with words that originated in academic and scientific fields. For example, “radius,” “genus,” and “appendix” all follow their original usage rules. 

Don’t be fooled; however, this rule doesn’t apply to all Latin or Greek originating words. For instance, “gymnasium” is Latin in origin. However, it doesn’t follow Latin plurality rules. 

Using “Criterion”

Criterion” is usually defined as “the standard upon which a decision can be based.” It should be used singularly instead of “criteria.” For instance: 

  • I was checking the rules, and I have a question about a specific criterion you listed. 
  • This criterion about presenting in front of others is just too hard for me to meet! 

Because we often speak about multiple “criteron,” the word “criteria” is more frequently seen in writing. 

Can We Use Criteria Singularly?

There may be some evidence that “criteria” follows a specific pattern of Latin/Greek-derived words that can be used singularly in some cases. 

For instance, “data” was a word that originated from the Latin “datum.” Originally it was intended that “data” was plural and “datum” was singular. However, the mass characteristics of “data” often allow it to be used as a singular noun. 

With all this being said, “criteria” is usually meant to be used strategically. However, most people won’t notice if you use it singularly here or there, especially if it sounds better within the sentence. 

Examples From The Media

We were pleasantly surprised by how well we’ve done when buying appliances, even though energy efficiency wasn’t our main criterion – in fact, it wasn’t even on the list. – The Guardian

For example, in 1977, Maskin developed a criterion for determining just when it’s possible to find a set of rules that will guide self-interested participants to the desired end. – Science Magazine

The World Trade Organisation bans their use as a criterion for contract evaluation in all industries except defence. – The Economist

Between those two countries and Zaire and Angola there is a common thread: their fates were dictated by Ronald Reagan’s sole criterion of policy – stop Communism. – Independent

The Takeaway

“Criterion” is a singular form of the plural “criteria.” The word originates from Greek. It is more commonly used in its plural form, “criteria,” however, you should feel free to use it in its singular form if you think it better fits your sentence.

Further reading:

What Is The Plural Form Of “Hero?”

Plural of “Crisis:”  Avoiding the Tragic Catastrophe of Misuse

Is “Public” Singular Or Plural?

1 COMMENT

  1. I can’t say I heard “criterion” being used before. I guess I should make an effort differentiating between singular and plural? It does fit nicely into a sentence sometimes….

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