The grammar of data and datum


in Geek stuff, Writing

Sticklers for proper grammar are fond of pointing out how frequently people misuse the word ‘data.’ A ‘datum’ is singular; data are plural. The Economist Style Guide (a companion on my desk) explains:

Data and media are plural. So are whereabouts. Teams that take the name of a town, country or university are plural, even when they look singular: England were bowled out for 56.

Law and order defies the rules of grammar and is singular.

While this may be technically accurate, it has always clashed with my intuition – and not only because those who supposedly use the term incorrectly far outnumber whose who follow grammarian cant.

The question for me is whether ‘data’ is more like cats or more like water. The cats are increasingly annoyed about all this talk of grammar, but they remain distinct, countable, independent entities. The water, by contrast, is salty, ever-present, and part of an amalgamated mass. I may have seen Ghost in the Shell a few too many times, but the data-water equivalency long since became firmly entrenched for me.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan Laing September 9, 2007 at 3:09 am

The question is not “is data like water” but “is data like bread”, or rice. You collect rocks (plural), I collect rice, and Jim collects data. It’s not that it isn’t plural, is that there isn’t the possibility of a singular grain of rice or morsel of bread. Data is plural, but it should be treated as a singular. If you have many pieces of data that are distinct (as you might have several breads rather than several loaves of bread), then you can have several datums.

sasha September 9, 2007 at 1:24 pm

I think I’m with you on this one Milan. Or maybe it’s Tristan I agree with. A bit of both, I think.

Perhaps it’s something unique to our generation, but I simply can’t imagine having a datum. I can’t imagine managing to corner just one little, tiny, individual datum from the stream. Maybe datums are flock animals, because they just don’t seem to occur in isolation (and if they do, their usefulness is severely diminished – where’s the corroborating data?); thus, data is like bread (for me anyways). You can have a little data, substantial data, or a piece of data (for breakfast – how nourishing).

Milan September 9, 2007 at 1:55 pm

Maybe French grammar can offer some clues.

If I recall properly, there are some things in French that always behave like unconsumable aggregates. You ‘drink of the water’ because you can never drink all of it. Perhaps data is similar.

Nathan B. September 9, 2007 at 6:28 pm

A hilarious post! I hope I don’t ruin the fun if I point out what you likely already know: much depends on the whole “prescriptive” vs. “descriptive” debate, to say nothing of the differences between American and British English. As a fellow BC-er, I get the impression that our English here is much closer to the former, notwithstanding “Canadian” spelling practices. For example, sports teams are always singular in headlines in both Canada and America. British headlines stick to treating them as plurals.

I think that “data” has been interpreted in modern communication as both singular and plural, countable and non-countable. I enjoy using the old Latin plurals just for fun, but I wouldn’t beat anyone up who didn’t.

For the record, I looked up “data” in my “Practical English Usage” (Michael Swan, published by OUP). It says, “Data is originally the plural of datum, which is not now used. In modern English data can be used either as an uncountable noun (this data is…) or as a plural (these data are…), with no difference in meaning.

Nathan B. September 9, 2007 at 6:30 pm

Nathan B. September 9, 2007 at 6:31 pm

Hmm, I just re-learned something about how Wordpress treats smart quotes.

Milan September 10, 2007 at 12:24 am

Hmm, I just re-learned something about how Wordpress treats smart quotes.

Even as someone who cares a lot about presentation, I have never found ‘smart’ quotes to be worth the trouble. They get jumbled too easily, moving from application to application.

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