The recent outbreak of food-borne disease in Germany caused by the organism E. coli has had me groaning at the utterings of the news presenters and reporters.

To be clear: E. coli is a bacterium. To refer to disease-causing bacteria is incorrect in this context unless there is another, different, organism also involved in spreading the disease.

An individual E. coli organism can of course rapidly produce copies which mean there are loads of them about but they are still the same species, the same type of bacterium. There is only one bacterium involved.

Curiously nobody seems to get confused about this sort of thing when a virus, rather than a bacterium, is the problem. Reporters will say for example, “the virus is spreading.” (Compare “the bacteria are spreading.”)

But then, unlike bacterium, the word virus has an English plural, not a Latin one.

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