Thursday, February 28, 2013

Are the Data Wrong?

English. A troublesome language. Sometimes what is right sounds wrong and vice versa. Sometimes what is right becomes wrong over a period of time and we only notice when it grates.

So on Radio 4 yesterday an interviewee was talking about data and he treated it as a plural. With another phrase in the gap he said, 'The data ... are pointing towards.'

Quite correct I believe. Data is the plural of datum. It is a plural noun. So we should say:

The datum is...
The data are...

Thing is, after a period of time of using a foreign word in English it becomes English. So it has to start obeying English rules. And datum as a singular has gone missing.

Oxford Guide to English Usage 1984 said this should not be done for data although pointed to a Churchill quote, 'Useful data has been obtained' suggesting that for a long time, in the world of computing and allied disciplines, it could be treated with singular verbs adding 'Some people object to (this)...'

Fowler, around the same time (Modern English Usage 1983) time pointed out that it was a solecism to treat data as a singular but commented that they do in the USA. Which is, of course, Fowlers way of getting at the Yanks for being common.

So I reckon the pedants (and scientific community) need to retreat now. The data clearly shows they are being outmanoeuvred. The correct use has started to sound wrong.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Datum is in common usage. Ask any engineer or builder of your acquaintance.

Fowler is wrong. Americans (and Canadians) universally use data as a plural.

As do properly brought up British people, although you probably have to have learned your english outside England.

St said...

There is a difference between specific and common usage. Fowler was 30 years ago. It was probably right then. And gosh what a barrel load of elitism that third paragraph is.If I knew who you were I'd call you a twat.

RuthJ said...

I know an editor who tried to enforce 'a number of people was standing in the room'. The author chose to recast her sentence.