Nov 17, 2007
I know there are more than a few wordsmiths among our readers and this entry is for you.
Data is a troublesome word. It is the plural of datum. And yet, I find it unnatural to say "here are my data" instead of "here is my data". Similarly, "datum point" is more grammatical than "data point" -- and perhaps both are redundant words -- because we should use a singular noun to modify another noun (e.g. company ranking, not companies ranking; potato chip, not potatoes chip; etc.)
In a recent piece on RSS News, Ian Schagen convinces me to treat data as singular, without remorse. Among his many arguments, he points out that agenda is the plural of agendum and yet we have no qualms using agenda as singular. So from now on, data is singular.
Ian has the last word:
In fact an amusing pastime is to read papers and articles by people, trying to use 'data' as a plural because they believe this to be 'correct', who slip into the proper English usage when their attention wavers. I've often seen both usages in a single sentence!
Source: "Why 'data' is singular", RSS News. (Unfortunately, this seems to be only available to members in paper copies.)
I suspect that in some papers it is the editor that requires the changes. Then of course some of it reads badly, so it is changed back.
Posted by: Ken | Nov 18, 2007 at 01:04 AM
"I consider 'data' to be a singular, uncountable quantity and therefore always attach a singular verb to 'data'"
Tim W, Mother Tongue Annoyances
I'm sure most people don't even bother with this kind of rationale, but treat 'data' as singular. What's "correct" in a language often has as much to do with common usage as with rules and precedents from other languages.
Posted by: Jon Peltier | Nov 18, 2007 at 10:17 AM
Actually, Mirriam-Webster says it well in its usage section:
"Data leads a life of its own quite independent of datum, of which it was originally the plural."
Posted by: Jon Peltier | Nov 18, 2007 at 10:59 AM
Every time I hear "data is", my toes curl. I find it sickening. It is sloppy. I mentally re-edit the offensive sentence (and by the gods, let no one tell you it is not offensive!) to correct it and by and large never read that author again. I have sworn never to buy anything from TechFusion, where "data is never lost." Faugh. They have certainly lost a customer.
Posted by: data ARE! | Nov 18, 2007 at 03:49 PM
Regular speech and the words we use to communicate research findings should not be the same, primarily due to the level of precision required for each.
In research, we keep the old usage because, for us, there is an important distinction between data and datum. In the common tongue, the word "data" is like "evidence". Rather than a term that is always plural, it is now a term with only a singular form.
So, in your vernacular speech, by all means, use the term "data point," but not when you're telling me how you gathered and analyzed your data, and how you drew your conclusions.
Posted by: JB | Nov 18, 2007 at 07:53 PM
"Natural" or "unnatural" are in the ear of the listener. It feels perfectly natural to me to use "data" as plural. To me, the problem with making "data" singular is that imprecise language leads to imprecise thinking, in this case about what data represent. A collection of data is not an undifferentiated mass like a bucket of water or a bowl of Jell-o. It is a set of discreet, individual bits of information, more like a bucketful of marbles. Failure to recognize this leads to lack of clarity about how data are analyzed and interpreted.
Posted by: Georgia Sam | Nov 19, 2007 at 02:06 PM
Here is another post on the same subject:
Count me among those who think data is a mass noun like corn and wheat, and therefore grammatically singular.
Posted by: John S. | Nov 19, 2007 at 10:01 PM
"Natural" or "unnatural" are in the ear of the listener.
English-speaking people typically face problems with words of Latin origin because the linguistic concept of gender, case and number is so different - for the civilized rest, using "data" (with an -a as suffix) as a singular noun is nothing but a sacrilege... (Actually, "datum" is the neuter perfect passive participle of "dare" -> "having been given" or "the one having been given").
But I also heard that people in the US sometimes say "one opera" (opus / opera), "one media" (medium / media) or "one criteria" (criterium / criteria) which are all as horrible as "one data" for educated people. So if you definitely want to demonstrate your barbarian language skills just use "the data is..." in international scientific publications...
Posted by: Dr. No | Nov 21, 2007 at 05:32 AM
In modern English usage, "data" is a mass noun (see Wikipedia for complete explanation). Your description of its original Latin form is correct, but we aren't speaking Latin. I very occasionally use the term "datum", but only when I'm trying to be slightly amusing and/or pretentious.
Posted by: Travis Miller | Nov 21, 2007 at 12:57 PM
Speaking of Latin words, how do all of you purists consider "agenda"? Does a meeting have an agenda? If it does, then we can speak about our data in the singular.
Posted by: Jon Peltier | Nov 25, 2007 at 10:39 PM
Indeed, data as a collective is correct in English, even if it came from Latin.
We don't say "that flock of geese are flying" because it's one thing. Data is a collection of information points. One collection.
One doesn't show one's education by using incorrect grammar.
Posted by: gc | Dec 10, 2007 at 10:21 PM