What are the criteria for properly using the word “criterion”? There’s actually only one criterion; the proper use of the word “criteria” is a very easy standard to meet. Confused yet? If you’ve ever found yourself scratching your head about the difference between these two words, worry not, wordsmiths: the criteria vs. criterion question is an easy one to answer.
Plural vs. Singular
Criteria are the principles by which something is decided or judged. For example, your writing teacher will only give you an A+ if you meet certain criteria, such as perfect test scores and a perfect attendance record. So where does criterion come in? You’ll be relieved to learn that the difference between these two words is as simple as one being singular and the other being plural. Criterion is just the singular form.
In other words, “criterion” refers to a single thing, while “criteria” refers to two or more things. That’s it! To say it another way, the only criterion for proper use of the word “criteria” is that you are listing several items. Get it? If not, read on for some illuminating examples.
Criteria vs. Criterion Examples
To make sure we never forget the difference between criteria and criterion again, let’s look at some examples using each of the two:
In the search for ways to reduce gun violence, a stricter background check process is one common criterion suggested for gun buyers by gun control advocates.
When looking at ways to reduce gun violence, gun control advocates often suggest new criteria for gun ownership, including stricter background checks, mental health screenings, and registration of every firearm purchased.
In the first example, the statement refers to a single factor in the gun control debate: the background-check process. Since only one factor is mentioned, “criterion” is used. For the second example, however, there are three factors that are mentioned. That’s why you need to use the plural form of the word: “criteria.”
Here’s a second example to drive the criterion vs. criteria point home:
The most important criterion for becoming licensed to drive a car is that the applicant is at least sixteen years old
The criteria for becoming licensed to drive a car include a written test, a vision test, and being at least sixteen years old.
So you see? The criteria for knowing the difference between criteria and criterion are simple! You only have to know one simple rule—and then remember which word is plural and which is singular. Once you master them, you’ll never misuse these words again.