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Data:

Responding to a commenter who used the phrase "this data," another commenter writes:

Not to be pedantic or anything, but I'm sure you meant these data. Perhaps it's old-fashioned, but I feel anyone with a PhD should be able to use "data" correctly. Anyone else, and I don't particularly care.

What puzzles me is what exactly the word "correctly" means here. My Merriam-Webster Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, for instance, reports that both the plural noun version of data (for which the dictionary offers the analogy earnings, and which takes plural verbs) and the abstract mass noun version (for which the dictionary offers the analogy information, and which takes singular verbs) "are standard" in English. In Latin, "data" might be exclusively plural. But we're speaking English, and in English both the singular and the plural are, according to this dictionary, fine.

My New Shorter Oxford likewise describes "data" as "pl. & collect. sing." The big online Oxford lists both. The American Heritage lists it as "pl. n. (used with a sing. or pl. verb)"; it does provide a usage note, but reports that "Sixty percent of the Usage Pannel accepts the use of data with a singular verb" as in "the data is in."

Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage is the most pro-plural modern source of the ones I've checked, but even it reports only that "in more or less formal contexts [data] is preferably treated as a plural." The original 1926 Fowler does insist that "data is plural only"; the 1996 New Fowler's Modern English Usage begins by giving as an example that "The data are (not is) insufficient," but reports that "In modern times usage varies," and notes that "In computing and allied disciplines [data] is treated as a singular noun."

Now let's set aside whether one views the singular data as elegant or grating; let's also set aside whether one would counsel one's students to take the course that will annoy, rightly or wrongly, the fewest readers. (Note that here both the singular and the plural versions may annoy some.) The claim was that the singular is not "correct[]." And I don't quite see for what sensible meaning of "correct" that claim is correct.

SheetWise:
The sensible meaning of "correct" which makes the claim "the singular is not correct" correct is "remove the errors or faults from" -- Correct?
7.13.2007 4:28pm
Steve2:
One of the wonderful things about English is that it's a grass-roots language, and "standard English" is a myth. Effectively, if you use it, and someone understands you properly, then what you did was valid. Contrast that to languages with authoritarian "Royal Academy" type institutions. I remember when the authority for Spanish (if I remember properly, the Royal Academy of the Castillian Language) issued a decision, and suddenly between my 7th grade and 8th grade Spanish classes, a letter disappeared.

Or to use a more popular example... with the rules that govern the English language, Pluto would still be a planet.
7.13.2007 4:31pm
theobromophile (www):
the singular data...?? "Datum," right?

The claim was that the singular is not "correct[]." And I don't quite see for what sensible meaning of "correct" that claim is correct.


Definition No.9: adj. "9. in accordance with an acknowledged or accepted standard; proper: correct behavior."
7.13.2007 4:36pm
dearieme:
I prefer the plural. I also prefer "dahta" to the grating "dayta". In my cause I plead Mr Lorenz Hart who rhymed "data" with "that-a is that-a". Youse goin' to argue wid a genius?
7.13.2007 4:36pm
Constitutional Crisis (mail):
I like this argument applied to "dicta" and "dictum."
7.13.2007 4:38pm
rarango (mail):
Life's little quesstions: Why does a sentence starting with "not to be pedantic......" always result in pedantry?
7.13.2007 4:44pm
BobH (mail):
Prescriptivists of the world, unite!
7.13.2007 4:45pm
rho (www):
I always use "these data" with speaking about databases and the data therein. Otherwise I'm often lax.
7.13.2007 4:54pm
JB:
When I use "data" as singular, I understand it as being a contraction of "set of data."

So "This data suggests" really means "the set of all data I am referring to suggests," and since "set" is singular, the verb can be too.

(To be even more pedantic)
7.13.2007 4:58pm
GeoffBro (mail):
Eugene, I'm not sure you can be permissive here while sticking up for "correct usage" anywhere else. Many dictionaries provide definitions for colloquial usage; however, defining a piece of grammar's correctness by whether or not it's common seems to be rather circular reasoning.

If you're willing to say that anything goes because English is a constantly mutating language, I don't think there's really a problem here. But it would seem from past posts that you're rather particular about certain grammatical rules. How can you decide what is "correct" and what is not?
7.13.2007 5:05pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
theobromophile: I understood that he meant "in accordance with an acknowledged or accepted standard; proper: correct behavior." But the dominant view among those who are usually seen as enunciated the "acknowledged or accepted standard" seems to be that both the singular and the plural are correct.

So I take it the commenter doesn't mean "in accordance to the dominant view of the dictionaries." What "acknowledged or accepted standard" is he then appealing to?

BobH: I am not here condemning prescriptivists as such. I'm wondering what authority a prescriptivist would point to in order to show that the singular "data" actually violates an authoritative prescription.
7.13.2007 5:08pm
JRL:
This reminds me of my every 4 year peeve with watching the World Cup. It drives me nuts to hear Brazil are this and Italy are that. IS IS IS!!!

Play on . . .
7.13.2007 5:09pm
jccw:
Are there any news here?
7.13.2007 5:10pm
SenatorX (mail):
I work in a field where we use the word data every day both internally and with customer sites. We say : need the data, get the data, look at the data, look in the data, collect more data. And I hear "data" said as dayta or dahta all the time. Nobody seems to care.

I agree with Steve2 100%.
7.13.2007 5:18pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
But are you sure you've considered all of the relevant datas?
7.13.2007 5:19pm
Paul7 (mail):
"Correct" in the sense implying "not annoying to people who learned to write English from teachers who were trained during the era when strict prescriptivist notions about grammar (to a great extent derived from the original Fowler) were extremely common, and distinctions like the usage in question were widely considered to be a mark of good education and thus an indicator of social class."

Or was that a rhetorical question, intended to embarrass a commenter with outdated views regarding grammar (itself an indicator of age and/or status within a more limited social set of people with a certain kind of academic training)?
7.13.2007 5:24pm
John425:
A Datum is a single bit of Data!
7.13.2007 5:31pm
Bottomfish (mail):
It's appropriate to have "datum" denote a single item of information, and "data" strictly denote a collection of items, becaause that makes it clear what you are talking about. Why blur a natural distinction?
7.13.2007 5:32pm
Just an Observer:
In my experience, scientists usually say "the data are," while computer programmers tend to say "the data is."
7.13.2007 5:35pm
robertemmet (mail):

Are there any news here?


Not a single new. Personally, when I deal with data, I use datorum.
7.13.2007 6:05pm
Stickler:
Not to be pedantic, but I'm sure that instead of "[a]nyone else, and I don't particularly care" the commenter meant "[a]s to anyone else, I don't particularly care.
7.13.2007 6:14pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
GeoffBro: Can you please point me to specific posts in which I am "it would seem from past posts that you're rather particular about certain grammatical rules," at least as questions of correctness?

I'm pretty sure that most of my posts complaining about people's usage make clear that I'm condemning certain usage as inelegant or otherwise subjectively annoying to me (or, in certain situations, as confusing). I'm a fairly thoroughgoing descriptivist, and I doubt I've materially departed from this descriptivism in previous posts -- but if you can point me to specific posts, I can see whether in fact I erred in those posts.

But more broadly, I'm not saying here that the singular "data" is correct just because it's common. (I could argue this, but that's not my argument here.) Rather, I'm saying that even if one looks at the Authorities, the Authorities generally treat the singular "data" as correct. So the question isn't just whether something can be grammatically incorrect -- it's whether the commenter to whom I was responding has substantial support for his view that this particular usage is grammatically incorrect.
7.13.2007 6:22pm
theobromophile (www):
In my experience, scientists usually say "the data are," while computer programmers tend to say "the data is."


Very true, but I remember a colleague saying, while looking at a single scan, "This data rocks out loud!"

Then again, "This datum rocks out loud" lacks some panache.
7.13.2007 6:26pm
Hoosier:
English is a language in which one can "correctly" say that something was "pretty ugly" or "terribly good." We have a /plural/ of /one/, for Pete's sake. ("Which do you want?"--"The red ones.")

Robert Emmet (I thought he was dead . . .) suggests the reason when he uses the dative: We have very few inflections in English. So our ears /want/ to hear the ones that we do have. So it's only luck if a word that doesn't end with -s stays plural.

So it's "data is." Because otherwise you're being annoying.
7.13.2007 6:28pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
And I think anyone with a Ph.D. should be able to quote Stokes' Theorem offhand. Ain't gonna happen, tho'.
7.13.2007 6:34pm
Paul Stephan (mail):
In the original slip opinion of Powell's concurrence in Bakke, one finds a quotation from a California court opinion stating "there is no empirical data" followed by a [sic]. The author of the California opinion published an op ed piece arguing for the permissive use of the singular verb. In the final reporter's version of the opinion, the [sic] was removed. So the Supreme Court appears to have ruled on this important issue.
7.13.2007 6:41pm
Smokey:
We seem to be missing the central fact: words matter.

Lawyers certainly know this; you don't hear a lawyer trying to argue, ''shizzle my nizzle,'' which can mean different things to different people.

Words matter. So, here ya go:

Neuter nouns of the second declension:

nominative singular datum
genitive singular data
dative singular data
accusative singular datum
ablative singular data

nominative plural data
genitive plural datum
dative plural datum
accusative plural data
ablative plural data
7.13.2007 6:57pm
ClassicsNerd:
Smokey: nope. "Datum" is a neuter noun of the second declension, but for the record:

nominative singular datum
genitive singular dati
dative singular dato
accusative singular datum
ablative singular dato

nominative plural data
genitive plural datorum
dative plural datis
accusative plural data
ablative plural datis

Unless you're making some kind of joke I don't get, in which case, never mind. Also, note "dative"--same root as "data"!

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.
7.13.2007 7:10pm
Smokey:
Far be it from me to dispute anyone named ClassicNerd. The name alone intimidates me in a post of this type. I was trying to recall my high school Latin from 40 years ago.

Thanks for the refresher. You da man. [Or is it: you be da man?]
7.13.2007 7:15pm
David Huberman (mail):
We interrupt this important program to bring you levity. The proper conjugation of the Latin word for, "to spit", is

spitto
spittere
ach
ptui!

NOW we return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

(It's my only 'good' Latin joke.)
7.13.2007 7:20pm
Anonymo the Anonymous:
Is this analogous to any extent? One of the first things drilled into your head if you find yourself learning sportswriting: "The Yankees have good pitchers. New York has good pitchers."

On another note, my general feeling is, in English, "data" is derived from the plural of the Latin "datum". But we are not speaking Latin; we are speaking English and we should feel no obligation to adhere to Latin grammar for its own sake. In English, "data" can be synonymous with "information" and treating it as singular leads to no logical contradictions, so why not?
7.13.2007 7:25pm
theobromophile (www):
theobromophile: I understood that he meant "in accordance with an acknowledged or accepted standard; proper: correct behavior." But the dominant view among those who are usually seen as enunciated the "acknowledged or accepted standard" seems to be that both the singular and the plural are correct.

So I take it the commenter doesn't mean "in accordance to the dominant view of the dictionaries." What "acknowledged or accepted standard" is he then appealing to?


EV: perhaps the second clause of the definition (i.e. "proper"), read in a very technical, archiac fashion? The commenter is likely referring to a select group, outside of the general population (for whom dictionaries are written*), who would use "datum" when referring to a singular measurement and "data" with multiple measurements.

I think the commenter partially answered the question with the first clause of the next sentence: "Perhaps it's old-fashioned,"** which implies that the singular usage of "data" has become acceptable grammar among the unwashed masses recently, but is nevertheless improper.

If/when I can find some older dictionaries, I'll look into this.

*After all, the word "ginormous" was recently added to the dictionary.

**Should this be hyphenated? I thought that nouns were not hyphenated (ex. "I am anal retentive"), whereas adjectives are hyphenated (ex. "That is a very anal-retentive statement").
7.13.2007 7:29pm
theobromophile (www):
Also, note "dative"--same root as "data"!

"Data" is derived from the Latin verb "dare," meaning "to give." (This was from the Greek "didomai.")

~recalling my Greek from five or six years ago
7.13.2007 7:32pm
Anonymo the Anonymous:
**Should this be hyphenated? I thought that nouns were not hyphenated (ex. "I am anal retentive"), whereas adjectives are hyphenated (ex. "That is a very anal-retentive statement").

First, (and I swear I would not point this out if this was not a thread explicitly discussing grammar), "anal retentive" is not being used as a noun in the sentence "I am anal retentive"; "am" is a linking verb (in the terminology I learned) which connects an adjectival predicate to the subject, not a transitive verb taking a noun as its object.

But to answer the question, yeah I think that's a commonly observed rule, I guess the reasoning is in "old-fashioned music", the hyphen shows "old" and "fashioned" are not to be read as separate adjectives which both modify "music".
7.13.2007 7:37pm
ClassicsNerd:
Theobromophile: Yup! Also the root of "dative," which makes sense, given that "dative" is the case for someone to whom something is given.
7.13.2007 7:40pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
In another twenty years, Webster's will probably approve of the singular criteria and phenomena, which are becoming fairly common even in edited prose. A piece by a lawyer in an Indiana bar journal made criteria, which the author thought was a singular, into a plural by adding an apostrophe and an s. These changes may be inevitable, and someday the singular criteria and phenomena won't be errors, but the battle is still worth fighting. Data, though, is something I gave up on long ago. Perhaps even using apostrophes to form plurals will someday pass a usage panel.
7.13.2007 7:41pm
Shelby (mail):
I feel anyone with a PhD should be able to use "data" correctly.

This whole dispute is easily fixed by inserting "Classics" before "PhD".

Presumably, however, the writer meant the use of "data" in English - in which case, why demand it of all PhDs but not of all English majors?
7.13.2007 7:59pm
theobromophile (www):

given that "dative" is the case for someone to whom something is given.

I was taught that the dative case involved any sort of direction (i.e. going to somewhere) - perhaps my memory is fried? or is that merely an abtract version of "giving?" or does Latin work differently than Greek? (Greek has a vocative, not an ablative, FWIW.)
7.13.2007 8:04pm
ClassicsNerd:
Theobromophile: you are correct about "dative"--it definitely applies in more situations than just being an indirect object. (By the way, Latin has a vocative too.)
7.13.2007 8:12pm
dr:

"The Yankees have good pitchers. New York has good pitchers."


except that they don't. why else would they bring back clemens?

(was that off topic?)
7.13.2007 8:23pm
theobromophile (www):

By the way, Latin has a vocative too.

But only four principle parts. Greek has six. ;)
7.13.2007 8:31pm
ras (mail):
Years ago when I took some programming courses the professor was quite insistent that datum was singular and data was plural. He'd even dock marks on tests over it.

At the time, and IIRC, the dictionary backed him up. Data was a new word to most people, only just coming into popular usage as computers caught on, so presumably the standard rules applied.

But apparently the repeated usage of data as singular has, at least in the minds of those who write dictionaries, made it acceptable.
7.13.2007 8:32pm
ClassicsNerd:
Theobromophile: just to be clear--if you are implying that Greek kicks Latin's butt from here to the curb, I could not agree with you more. Let's get a thread started here about something Greek-related--I nominate "the hoi polloi"--and then we can really go to town! (My guess is your Greek is much better than mine, though.)
7.13.2007 8:59pm
Hoosier:
"The hoi polloi" = The the people

Redundant, if I remember correctly.
7.13.2007 9:33pm
ClassicsNerd:
Hoosier: Yup--"the the many." But I would say that's one battle that's been completely lost. On the other hand, maybe the correct side won; if the "we're not speaking Greek [or Latin, or whatever] argument" should ever triumph, "the hoi polloi" seems like a pretty good case. (On a pretentious git-ness scale, "the hoi polloi" wallops "data are." And I say this as someone who gets grumpy every times she sees "the hoi polloi.")
7.13.2007 10:04pm
John D. Galt (mail):
I mostly agree with Paul7. Language prescriptivism is a bad thing -- natural languages have no authorities over them; therefore they are defined by the consensus of most users. (I do not recognize exceptions even for government bodies such as the Académie Française, whose continuing efforts to hold back the tide accomplish nothing except to look foolish.)

But while I agree that a language is defined by its users, and that innovation of new words and usages exists and is valid, I also cannot accept the opposite extreme position, that there is no such thing as "incorrect" use of language. Once one accepts that there is no line to be drawn between correct English (or American) and gibberish, anything can mean anything; there is no longer any way to extract signal from noise, and communication comes to a complete halt. I'm not being facetious; I believe that (for instance) most rap music lyrics are so far down this slippery slope, they might as well be at the bottom.

I would like to see this chaos corrected, not by law but by market demand, especially in the three main areas where the marketplace used to (and many people still expect it to) take care of the problem:

1) The schools, especially grade schools. I believe teacher hiring, firing, and retention decisions should be based at least in part on a requirement that they use the language correctly, because kids will learn from their example.

2) When I was young, dictionaries were ridiculously prescriptivist (Webster's, for instance, would not accept "data" as a mass noun as long as Edwin Newman sat on their board, 20 years after it was widely accepted by the public). Now many dictionaries err in the opposite direction, but the damage has been done: dictionaries have lost their credibility by being too disconnected from reality for too long. They need to start monitoring public opinion (at least among the well educated) the way politicians do if they ever want to be taken seriously again.

3) Of late, TV and radio newscasters have become some of the worst offenders. Like teachers, they teach a lot of people by example whether they intend to or not, so their bosses ought to expect them to use words properly. I hear two kinds of error especially often in newscasts: sentences with no verb, and "suspect" used as a synonym for "criminal".
7.13.2007 11:42pm
PersonFromPorlock:
Enough of 'data'; on to 'media'!
7.13.2007 11:46pm
jimbino (mail):
My agenda hold that data is always plural. People judge you by the words you use. The educated person will understand you when you say, as Bill Gates does, "One or more of your disk drives has errors on it," but he won't give you a job. Bill Gates, like George Bush, can continue to sound ignorant, because he owns the company.
7.14.2007 12:28am
theobromophile (www):
Theobromophile: just to be clear--if you are implying that Greek kicks Latin's butt from here to the curb, I could not agree with you more. Let's get a thread started here about something Greek-related--I nominate "the hoi polloi"--and then we can really go to town! (My guess is your Greek is much better than mine, though.)

(Laughing) Sounds good.

My Greek is very outdated. Took Attic and Homeric in college.

"The hoi polloi" is much like "ATM machine" or "PIN number."
7.14.2007 1:19am
Bruce:
This whole dispute reminds me of the famous anecdote about Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who insisted that "news" was plural. He once cabled a correspondent in the field: "ARE THERE ANY NEWS?" The correspondent cabled back: "NO NOT A SINGLE NEW."
7.14.2007 1:29am
A Northwestern Law Student (mail):

By the way, Latin has a vocative too.

But only four principle parts. Greek has six. ;)

And it has a locative case as well, which as I recall only applies to islands and cities. (BTW, principal parts -- "not to be pedantic." :)

@jimbino: "[m]y agenda hold that..." can't be correct. Even for a classics pedant, "agenda" means "items of business" or (more correctly) "things that must be done." Your usage is nonsense.
7.14.2007 1:41am
spring (mail):
When I was in fourth grade in the spring of 1957, I lost a spelling bee by spelling the word "datum": "datemn"--I knew I was screwed with the "e" and just ended with da--mn. I had made it all the way to city finals on University of Houston TV and lost to a four letter word.
I had not had any Latin in primary school and so did not understand sing/plural and besides, data was not a commonly used word as Sputnik had not even been orbited. In high school, I took two years of Latin which came in handy when I majored in biology in college.
Transitioning nouns to verbs can also be worrisome if one forgets that English is an evolving language. We teach Biology students that one of the reasons Latin is used to give scientific names to organisms because the language is "dead" so no new words can be added to the Latin dictionary.
"Data" has adapted to English rules of syntax via fifty years of common usage and slackage.
7.14.2007 5:44am
Smokey:
PersonFromPorlock:
Enough of 'data'; on to 'media'!
Having learned my lesson from ClassicNerd above:


Neuter nouns of the second declension:

nominative singular medium
genitive singular medii
dative singular medio
accusative singular medium
ablative singular medio

nominative plural media
genitive plural mediorum
dative plural mediis
accusative plural media
ablative plural mediis
7.14.2007 9:55am
ReaderY:
When was the last time you heard the word "datum"?

If you've ever bought a standard topographical map, you'll notice that the entire North American Geodesic Survey is considered a single datum.
7.15.2007 3:17am
TechieLaw (mail) (www):
Well, I guess it also depends on what the meaning of 'is' is. :-)
7.15.2007 12:36pm
Public_Defender (mail):
"Data" can arguably be either plural or a collective singular noun. Anyone who says it is simply wrong to use "data" as singlular is, well, simply wrong.

If you are writing for a non-scientific audience, the singular will probably jar fewer people. If you are writing for a scientific audience, the plural will probably jar fewer people. Legal audiences are probably somewhere in between.

But irregardless of what you do, some pedantic fool will whine about your choice. So use "data" however it flows best for you.

P.S. Yes, I know "irregardless" is not a word.
7.15.2007 9:25pm
William Van Alstyne (mail):
Well, Gene...
You may use "data" (rather than "datum") )and vice-versa) if you like. But then, you may also use "like" instead of "as," and "who" for "whom," and (even) "me" for "I"--or any number of other lazy uses gradually accumulating support by utter repetition. Meantime, however, don't be prickly when more learned (!) colleagues express some mild perturbation at your choices (it's not easy to tell when you are consciously merely accepting what appears to have become quite "standard," and when you are simply being slovenly....).
Cheers,
WVA
7.16.2007 1:18pm