6.17.2006

Data or datum?

"Data" is the plural form of "datum," but I don't hear people say, "The datum shows that..." (datum is singular, thus an "s" is needed), though I do hear people say, "The data show that..." (data is plural, thus there is no "s" there).

Most people say, "The data is..." which is grammatically incorrect because "data" is plural and "is" goes with a singular subject. It just sounds better, which is why it's more common.

So should grammar matter in this case? Picky editors will change it, but it's jarring to read or hear. I'm sure people who hear the "correct" version think it's incorrect. So for instance, someone might be watching a scientific show and hear an expert say, "The data are..." and wonder why such an educated person is misusing that word, when they're really being grammatically correct.

Data has become a victim! (or more correctly: Data have become victims!)

12 comments:

Jon Konrath said...

If you want to get even more confused over this, in the surveying world, datum's plural is datums.

mj said...

You mean like surveying land (the guys with the equipment who stand in random places near roads), or the kinds of surveys that people answer?

Jon Konrath said...

Surveying land. A datum is an axis you measure along. If you measure along more than one of those, they are datums.

mj said...

Cool--one of those facts that only nerdy people would appreciate. :)

Arrogant Polyglot said...

Those wonky plural forms for latin words are a pain, even for us educated folk! I mean, how was I supposed to know that the plural of 'corpus' was 'corpora' (I got my knuckles rapped by my linguistics prof for that!). For a full list, I recommend this site.

I appreciated your 'data have become victims'. That example clearly illustrates that it seems so awkward to see a plural adjective for 'data'!

mj said...

Cool site. I should do a post about that.

amida said...

The argument could be made that "data" was incorporated into the English language but "datum" got left behind. (I used top have a running argument with my neighbor over using "kimonos" in English....)

mj said...

Hardly anyone would know that "kimonos" is incorrect cuz you have to know that there aren't any plurals in Japanese.

Arrogant Polyglot said...

And I would argue that 'kimonos' IS correct in English, although incorrect in Japanese. When a word is borrowed into any language, the matrix language morphology/phonology can do what ever it pleases!

For instance, did you know that the word 'curfew' is from French 'couvre-feu'? (The 'couvre-feu' was the time of night when you were required to cover the fire before going to bed).

Check out Shana Poplack and read some of her articles on code-switching and borrowing. Fascinating!!

mj said...

Yeah, kimonos is correct in English because it's not Japanese--when it moves into another language they can do whatever they want.

I had no idea that curfew came from that French word. Much to be learned from the Arrogant.

amida said...

MJ and Arrogant Polyglot: Wanna join me and gang up against my neighbor? ;)

mj said...

Sure--the weapons will be dictionaries and grammar books.