Deciphering “Data”: Is It Singular or Plural in Modern Usage?

Marcus Froland

English can be a bit of a puzzle, especially when it comes to the words we use every day. Take “data”, for example. It’s everywhere – in our phones, at work, even in our favorite TV shows. But when it’s time to write or talk about it, things get confusing. Is it “data is” or “data are”? It seems simple, but this tiny detail can throw many for a loop.

The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think. It all boils down to how we see data – as a single thing or a bunch of items? And let me tell you, opinions vary. Some folks stick to the rules they learned long ago, while others adapt based on what feels right in the moment. But don’t worry; I’m here to clear things up. Let’s break down this dilemma and make sense of it together.

Data is a word that often causes confusion when it comes to its proper use in sentences. The key question many people ask is: Should I write “data is” or “data are“? The answer depends on how you view the word data. In scientific and formal writing, data is considered plural, so you would use “data are“. For example, “The data are clear.” This usage follows the original Latin, where data is the plural of datum. However, in everyday conversation and informal writing, many people treat data as a singular mass noun, using “data is“. For instance, “This data is interesting.”

In short, both “data is” and “data are” can be correct. It largely depends on your audience and the level of formality in your writing.

The Origin and Grammar Debate of “Data”

The plurality and subject-verb agreement of “data” have long been contentious topics among linguists, writers, and the general public. This debate is rooted in the word’s Latin origin and its journey through language evolution.

Understanding “Data”: From Latin to English

The etymological roots of “data” can be traced back to the Latin word datum, which means “something given.” The plural form of datum in Latin is data, thus initially signifying multiple units of information. However, as the word was integrated into the English language, its grammatical number has undergone significant transformation. While datum remains the technically correct singular form, it has become increasingly rare in modern linguistic trends.

The Argument for “Data Are”: A Grammatical Perspective

Traditional grammarians and scholars often advocate for using “data” with plural verbs, such as “data are,” to respect the word’s Latin plural origins. This stance is particularly firm in specific fields like scientific and academic writing, where multiple discrete units of information require strict grammatical standards. In these contexts, the argument for using “data” as a plural countable noun is often prioritized.

“Data” originated from the Latin word datum, meaning “something given.” However, as the word was integrated into the English language, its grammatical number has undergone significant transformation.

“Data Is” Gaining Ground: The Evolution of Language

While “data is” was once considered grammatically incorrect, contemporary linguistic trends have witnessed a shift toward recognizing “data” as both singular and plural. Major publications are increasingly treating “data” as a collective noun, employing the singular verb “is.”

Language evolution and the need for a simpler, more accessible communication style have played a significant role in this transformation, from singular form to potentially plural.

  1. Latin origin of data: datum (singular), data (plural)
  2. Traditional grammarians argue for the use of “data” with plural verbs
  3. Increasing acceptance of “data” with a singular verb in modern linguistic trends
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The current state of “data” usage reflects the versatile and adaptive nature of the English language, accommodating shifts in popular grammar and the needs of different writing contexts.

Case Use in Scientific and Academic Writing

When it comes to data in academic writing and within scientific disciplines, the treatment of the word “data” largely remains plural. Researchers in these fields often emphasize the precision and accuracy of language, aiming to clarify that “data” consists of multiple data points or individual pieces of information. This preference for using “data” as a plural noun aligns with the scientific standards for data representation and communication.

On the other hand, general audiences and nonscientific writing increasingly lean towards using “data” as a singular noun. In these contexts, the word “data” often takes on a more collective meaning, referring to an entire set or group of information. This demonstrates a significant contextual divergence in the application of “data” between specialized and nonspecialized writing.

“Researchers found that the data are consistent with previous studies, supporting the hypothesis of a positive correlation between variables A and B.”

In the above example, ideal for an academic or scientific publication, “data” is used as a plural noun to highlight the various data points analyzed. Contrast this with the following sentence, more appropriate for a general audience:

“The latest report reveals that data is severely lacking in rural areas, affecting the quality of information available to policymakers.”

  1. Scientific and Academic Writing: In these contexts, “data” is typically used as a plural noun to emphasize individual data points or specific pieces of information.
  2. General Audiences and Nonscientific Writing: Here, “data” is more often used as a collective noun to represent a set or group of information as a single entity.

While both forms of “data” can be found within a wide range of sources, it is essential to recognize the differing standards and preferences for data in research context, depending on the field and target audience. By understanding the nuances of language and usage for “data,” authors can better tailor their writing to fit the expectations of their readers and accurately convey their intended meaning.

General Usage: How Popular Media Treats “Data”

As the usage of “data” evolves alongside language and communication trends, it is essential to examine its treatment within journalism and popular media. This analysis sheds light on the ongoing singular versus plural debate and the factors influencing the choice between “data is” and “data are.”

Media Giants and Their Stance on “Data”

Media outlets like The Wall Street Journal have adopted “data is” since 2012, citing the shift in style guides and dictionaries that accept both singular and plural usage depending on context. This-changing stance reflects a pragmatic approach to communication and reader comprehension, emphasizing the importance of conveying meaning effectively over adhering to traditional grammar rules.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s Take on “Data”

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) classifies “data” as a mass noun, much like “information,” which naturally takes singular verbs. This interpretation is increasingly recognized in standard English, reinforcing “data’s” singular form in broad usage and cementing its validity within everyday language.

Pronunciation: /ˈdādə/
Origin: Early 18th century. From classical Latin data, plural of datum, past participle of dare to give (source of datum).
NOUN
1 treated as singular or plural. Facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis.
1.1 Computing. A set of values of qualitative or quantitative variables of an item; an item to which a data item refers; data stored or processed as a unit.

Language Experts Weigh In: The Singular/Plural Conundrum

Language experts remain divided over “data’s” singularity or plurality, with some endorsing the use of “data are” in specialized fields and “data is” in everyday language. This division underscores language’s dynamic nature and the impact of communicative intent on grammar and usage. Here are some expert opinions:

  1. Geoffrey Pullum, linguist and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, supports “data is” in general usage, and “data are” in more specialized contexts where precision is paramount.
  2. John McIntyre, language blogger and copy editor at the Baltimore Sun, argues that “data” should be treated as a plural noun when referring to individual datapoints and as a singular noun when used as a mass noun.
  3. Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist and author of The Sense of Style, contends that the plural form “data are” is most appropriate in academic circles, while “data is” may often be more suitable in casual contexts and journalism.
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The evolving treatment of “data” within popular media and expert opinions showcases its versatility and adaptive nature. As with all language-related debates, context, audience, and meaning play crucial roles in determining whether “data” should be treated as singular or plural.

Why Context Matters in the “Data Is” vs. “Data Are” Debate

When it comes to choosing between “data is” and “data are,” context is king. The way you treat “data” in your writing can depend heavily on the context, purpose, and audience of your work. In some cases, it makes more sense to use “data” as a mass noun, referring to an indivisible whole, while in other instances, a count noun is more appropriate, emphasizing individual pieces of information. Understanding contextual grammar for data and adapting your usage accordingly can help ensure clarity and precision in your communication.

“The decision to treat ‘data’ as singular or plural ultimately depends on the conventions of your field, organization, or the specific topic being addressed.” – Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty

Different fields and industries have their own conventions and preferences when it comes to data usage variations. For instance, in scientific and academic writing, “data” is often treated as a plural noun to align with the idea that research results comprise multiple data points. In contrast, journalism and everyday language tend to favor “data” as a singular noun, referring to a general collection of information. The following examples illustrate how context dictates the choice between “data is” or “data are”:

  • Scientific research: Data collected from these studies are expected to shed light on the topic at hand.
  • Journalism or casual conversation: The leaked data is shocking, revealing surprising trends in consumer behavior.

Another important aspect to consider is the emphasis you want to convey. If you want to focus on the individual data points within a dataset, opt for “data are.” Conversely, when referring to an entire body of information, “data is” might be a more suitable choice. By recognizing these nuances, you can effectively adapt your context in grammar and write for specific audiences or purposes deliberately.

Ultimately, understanding the role of context in the “data is” vs. “data are” debate allows you to employ the appropriate form of “data” in your writing based on your specific communication goals. Familiarizing yourself with the preferences of different fields and considering your desired emphasis can help ensure your message comes across clearly and accurately, no matter which side of the debate you choose.

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Grammar Style Guides and Their Recommendations

In the world of grammar, style guides serve as authoritative sources for writers, ensuring consistency and accuracy in language usage. How do major style guides address the data usage conundrum? Here, we examine the impact of the AP Stylebook, traditional grammar rules, and the digital age on the ever-evolving singularity and plurality of “data.”

The AP Stylebook on Data: Singular or Plural?

The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, a widely respected resource for journalists and media professionals, offers data guidelines that reflect a more modern approach. According to the AP Stylebook, “data” generally adopts singular verbs in non-scientific writing and for general audiences. This trend signifies a widespread acceptance of singular usage outside academic and scientific domains.

Conservatism in Language: Major Style Manuals’ Views on “Data”

Although the AP Stylebook acknowledges the shift toward singular verbs for “data,” other conservative style guides maintain a more traditional standpoint. They advocate for the plural usage of “data” in formal writing, especially within scientific and technical contexts, adhering to the word’s Latin plural origins.

“Data” remains plural in most style manuals, reflecting a commitment to traditional grammar rules and the word’s etymological history.

The Informal and Digital Age Shift Towards Singularity

As society continues to embrace digital technology and informal communication channels, the usage of “data” has gradually shifted to accommodate these changes. In non-specialist settings and when referring to digitally stored information, “data” is increasingly recognized as a singular noun. This reflects a broader linguistic trend toward simplicity and accessibility in the information age and the ever-evolving digital landscape.

In summary, style guides, traditional grammar rules, and the emergence of data in the digital age have all played a role in shaping the understanding and usage of “data” as a singular or plural noun. The choice ultimately depends on the context, audience, and the author’s intent, highlighting the flexibility and adaptability of the English language.

Common Real-World Examples of “Data Is” and “Data Are”

Various contexts and industries showcase the difference between using “data is” and “data are” effectively. By examining these real-world examples, you can better understand when and how to apply these grammatical constructions for optimal communication.

Typically, you see “data is” used in journalistic or conversational settings. For instance, The New York Times might print, “The data is suggesting a rise in unemployment rates.” This usage falls in line with general-audience journalistic and conversational standards. On the other hand, “data are” features more prominently in scholarly work and technical reports, where authors focus on discrete data points. An example might be an academic paper stating, “Data from multiple studies are consistent in showing a correlation between exercise and mental health.”

These scenarios illustrate the importance of context and audience when deciding between “data is” and “data are.” By keeping in mind the intended purpose of your writing and the preferences of your readers, you can skillfully navigate the ongoing debate surrounding the grammatical number of “data,” ensuring that your message comes across accurately and effectively.