Monday, September 8, 2008

Data is!

Some style guides insist that because "data" comes from the Latin plural of "datum", we are therefore required to treat the word "data" as plural, and we should write things like "These data are".

I disagree, and consider it completely appropriate to treat "data" as a "mass noun", like "milk" or "mud" or "information". The IEEE agrees that this is permitted, and defers to author preference in their published materials.

My main reason is a simple one: the word "datum" is not used in everyday English, nor is it used in statistics or computing science. It is an obscure word almost never encountered, even in professional or academic contexts, and it thus seems a little strange or perverse to insist that "data" is "really" the plural of "datum".

Moreover, the word "agenda" comes from a Latin plural whose corresponding singular noun, "agendum", is virtually never encountered in English. Nobody objects to the linguistic reality that in contemporary English, "agenda" is a singular noun.

Data is stuff. Data is information. I hope this data convinces you. Live with it.

5 comments:

Skullturf Q. Beavispants said...

"Graffiti" is another word whose etymological origins are plural (it comes from the plural of the Italian "graffito") but is uncontroversially a singular mass noun in today's English (one never encounters "these graffiti").

epileptikitty said...

"Data" (day-ta, dat-ta) is an English loan word. "Datum" & "Data" (Dottoom, dottaah) are Latin.

Deal With This!

Rock Golf said...

So what's your opinion on "opera" - singular or plural?

Skullturf Q. Beavispants said...

That's an interesting example, because nobody I know of objects to "opera" as singular, even though "opus" is a reasonably common English word (certainly more common than "datum").

Meanwhile said...

The Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that although the original root is Latin, "opera" came to us by way of Italian, where it had already been singularized.

No such excuse for "data." In fact, "datum" is an English word (yes, also borrowed from Latin), with a slightly different meaning than the "data" that is synonymous with "information." A datum is an item given as a basis for reasoning, and its plural "data" is rightfully treated as plural.

So, yes, the familiar, mass-noun sense of "data" is sometimes overzealously treated as plural by people who are not as learned as they pretend to be, but that does not mean that plural "data" does not have its place.