Pay attention to the data.
But which data? This data, or those data?
Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, watchers worldwide have given heightened credence to data: to know where the virus would spread, when it would spike, how we’d know it’s safe to return to normal. Google searches related to data have steadily increased over the last month. But that means we’re seeing the debate over whether data is singular or plural rage like never before.
Those who insist on using data as a plural noun stand on a Latin pedestal: The word, they argue correctly, is the plural form of the noun datum, and should therefore take a plural verb: “the data show this,” “the data suggest that.” These people are often scientists or academics who deal a lot in data. The Inquirer is in this camp.
Then there is the data-is-singular group. Their arguments are legion: that the singular usage is more common; that stylebooks like the Associated Press use it in singular; that you don’t get worked up about agenda as plural for agendum, or media as plural for medium, so why this? But ultimately this camp boils down to: Saying “the data show this” sounds obnoxious and turns off readers.
Which it does.
Dictionaries, usually the go-to arbiters, aren’t much help here. Merriam-Webster says that data is plural, but either singular or plural in construction — which is like saying that someone is straight, but in practice, will happily sleep with people of any sex.
Publications of record aren’t too useful either. This week (as in any week) one can easily find the New York Times or the Washington Post using data in both singular and plural on the same day, even within a single article.
Some will tell you the data debate boils down to whether the word is being used as a mass noun or a count noun. Count nouns are countable (“I have nine frogs”), whereas mass nouns aren’t (“I have blue luggage”). Mass nouns always take singular verbs (you wouldn’t say, “The blue luggage are mine”), and so if data is a mass noun, it would have to take a singular verb. But data can just as easily work as a count noun if referring to many disparate data points, when a plural verb wouldn’t seem out of the question (“the data [points] are all over the place”).
But over a half century that has seen more data usage and data accumulation than the ancient Romans ever dreamed of, the word has changed. It is now not just possible but preferable to treat data in the singular. The Associated Press Stylebook is a good example: It used to say data was plural, but changed its guidance to singular in 2019. The Oxford English Dictionary overhauled its data entry in 2012: Whereas before it treated data only as a subset of datum, now it has plenty of examples of data used in singular and plural.
Latin snobs will sob, but unless those people are willing to stand by sentences like “I sent out the meeting agendum” or “I came up with five possible different agenda,” they’re holding double standards. If a plural verb seems necessary, change it to data points or data sets so you don’t alienate your readers and make them tune out.
Because when heeding data is literally a matter of life or death, we need people paying attention more than ever.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions and noun plagues to email@example.com.