Etymology Usage

Data entry

Q: In your 2007 posting about “media,” you write that “data” is now “considered singular by a great many usage experts.” As a consulting economist, I’ve long observed that “data” is usually singular in technical literature.

A: You’re right in observing that in scientific and technical literature, “data” has long been treated as a singular collective noun.

We mentioned this in a discussion of “data” in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.

Here’s what we wrote:

“ ‘Data’ first appeared in English in the seventeenth century, but it didn’t become a common word until a century or so ago. Since then, people have been arguing about its singularity. In its modern sense—information in the form of facts and figures—is ‘data’ singular or plural? It was first used as a singular in 1902, and the practice soon became widespread, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. But battle lines formed.

“English handbooks reared up in protest over the next couple of decades. Their reasoning? In Latin, data is plural and the singular is datum. But no less an authority than the journal Science joined the fray in 1927 on the opposite side, insisting that ‘ “data” in the sense of facts is a collective which is preferably treated as a singular.’ As Science pointed out, the term ‘datum’ (plural: ‘datums’) is a technical word used in surveying, while ‘data’ means information. Even the revered Webster’s Second of 1934, the dictionary that nobody with back problems should attempt to lift, endorsed the singular ‘data.’ As the usage authors Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans noted dryly in the 1950s, ‘No one should think that he must treat data as a plural merely because Julius Caesar may have done so.’ The lesson? Tempus fugit.

“In Caesar’s day, data referred to things that were given, such as the givens in a scientific hypothesis. (It came from dare, the Latin verb for ‘give.’) But we use ‘data’ more broadly today to refer to factual information in general. In fact, the English word is closer to indicium, the Romans’ word for ‘information,’ than it is to the Latin data. When a Latin word has a life of its own in English (think “audio” or “video”) there’s no reason to treat it as Caesar did.

“Then why do so many people ignore the data on ‘data’? There’s an old joke in journalism that when all else fails, you can always blame the media. And here, it seems, publishers of newspapers, magazines, books, and so on are largely to blame. For decades, the house style for most companies required treating ‘data’ as a plural. That means generations of editors diligently changed ‘data is’ to ‘data are,’ and ‘this data’ to ‘these data.’ ”

As we note in our book, we did this ourselves for many years when we were journalists. Our former employer, the New York Times, changed its house style to favor the singular “data” in 1999.

By the way, as you probably noticed in that 2007 posting about whether “media” is singular or plural, we advised readers to “stay tuned.”

“Many usage experts,” we wrote, “have predicted that in a generation or two ‘media’ will be considered acceptable as a singular noun.”

This has now come to pass, at least when “media” refers to the world of mass communications as a whole, as we wrote last year in an updated blog entry.

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