The Data Are Speaking

I have more than my share of pet peeves about language usage, none greater than the ubiquity of the phrase "I could care less" when what people are actually trying to say is "I couldn't care less" (it's one thing to say something wrong, but something else entirely to say the opposite of what you're trying to say, for frack's sake). But whenever I'm feeling doctrinaire, I think of "February," and ask myself whether I really think anyone ought to be saying "Feb-ROO-air-ee." Then I get sad thinking about how in 50 years, we'll all be saying "nuke-yoo-lar" like a nation of George W. Bushes. The point is, pronunciation and usage are constantly evolving, and there's only so long you can hold out for what's correct against what's common.

Which brings me to "data." Although I agree with Kevin Drum about most things, I found out today that he and I have different ideas about this word:

But I won't rest until they — and everyone else — accept the plain fact that data should be treated as a singular noun in all circumstances. The worst offenders here are generally in academia, and I've always wondered if they actually talk the same way they write. (I mean in casual speech, not prepared remarks.) I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone say "data are," but lots of diehards with PhDs still use it in print.

I say "data are," and I've heard other people (academics, admittedly) say it in casual speech. This probably has to do with the fact that I did spend a portion of my life in academia, studying something that is also commonly rendered as a singular when in fact it's a plural: media. "Media" is the plural of "medium," just as "data" is the plural of "datum." So when I talk about "the media," I conjugate it properly, as in, "The media are stupid."

That being said, I'll grant you that I feel a twinge of discomfort every time I use "data" as a plural. It's the feeling that comes from knowing that although you're right, you also probably sound pedantic and pretentious. So I guess if Kevin's campaign to stamp out any plural usage of "data" succeeds, I won't be all that upset.

Just don't say "I could care less" in my presence.

Comments

Use of the singular verb for "data" has the imprimatur of no less an authority than the writers behind the Oxford English Dictionary. "In modern non-scientific use, however, despite the complaints of traditionalists, it is often not treated as a plural. Instead, it is treated as a mass noun, similar to a word like information," they have opined. Saying "the data is" is a perfect illustration of English as a living, breathing thing; when was the last time anyone said "the agenda for today's meeting ARE," even though the datum/data, agendum/agenda pairs follow the same Latin rules for singular and plural.

Hurray!

And you are quite right, "media" is a plural, dammit!

Never give up.

The woman who taught you to diagram sentences in the 5th grade would be proud of you, were she still alive.

Better that than have her spinning in her grave.

Some of my nits to pick (in addition to data and media, which are major): loan/lend. You LEND someone money. Once you do, they received a LOAN from you.
lie/lay: learn transitive from intransitive, people!

"But whenever I'm feeling doctrinaire, I think of "February," and ask myself whether I really think anyone ought to be saying "Feb-ROO-air-ee.""

You ought to speak to about 60 million Brits. That's the way the word is pronounced.

leegomes' point that the singular use is supported by the OED is spurious. He cites the OED as saying "In modern non-scientific use, however, despite the complaints of traditionalists, it is often not treated as a plural." That's not exactly a ringing endorsement; merely a comment that a particular illiteracy is widely used.

Myself, I've no fundamental objections to illiteracies: they're one of the ways in which a living language evolves. However, I think there's a confusion in this particular case. The word "data" can be read as both a plural and a collective noun, depending on context. As a plural it should certainly take "are" and as a collective noun it may often reasonably take "is". (The same goes for "media".)

Like yourself, I normally hold Drum in high esteem; here he's being an idiot, though, and even more of an idiot in thinking himself Jolly Witty to maintain intransigence. His claim that no one ever uses the construction "data are" reveals either that he's keeping the wrong company or that he's simply hearing what he's expecting to hear rather than what people are actually saying (a perfectly normal psychological behavior). Although I'm not an academic and mix only rarely with academics, I have a job that requires me to be sensitive to language use; I would guess that 90% of the people I deal with normally follow the contextual principle mentioned above.

And as a fellow fan of Battlestar Galactica, I feel obligated to point out that you, sir, have misspelled "frak." There is no c.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frak_(expletive)

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