Re: *Data* question

Subject: Re: *Data* question
From: Steve Wax <stevewx -at- ESKIMO -dot- COM>
Date: Sat, 2 Sep 1995 22:59:00 -0700

For some reason, an earlier post I sent on this subject was apparently lost
in cyberspace. If it materializes on the list after this repost, I apologize
to all techwhirlers for the redundancy.

* * *

Although data is preferable in the plural where it refers to a plural
subject, e.g., cells of information, I think we should defer to the
increasing usage of data in the singular when it refers to a singular
subject. Software analysts and engineers often refer to a report as data, to
a printout as data, to a form as data. Most of these people feel strongly
about the propriety of data in the singular because they are simply not
referring to anything plural.

Then why not call a report a report instead of data? Well you could, but the
fact remains that the meaning of data is no longer confined to the
information a report contains--it sometimes refers to the report itself.
Writers have found it useful as a shorthand for "collection of data," which
takes the singular. It's also often used as a synonym for information, which
also takes the singular (some distinguish between data and information by
considering information organized data).

Though clearly the term originated as the plural of "datum," you tell me how
many "datum"s (not data :)) you find in a week's worth of writing,
rewriting, and editing. Yup, that's how many I come across too. Datum's
simply not used because data now takes the singular as well as the plural.
Its meaning has extended beyond its origins. It won't be the first word
whose usage has shifted over the centuries. The changes are useful, the
losses, I think, negligible.

Of course, we can be adamant, we can "know better," we can insist that
things be done the right way, that is, our way, which is of course the
superior way, if only these ignoramuses we work with would educate
themselves to the pristine beauty of etymological purity.

But any way you look at it, to insist on data as strictly plural is to fight
a losing battle.

Getting back to Deborah's question:

> Which phrase do y*all prefer? Are any grammatically incorrect?
> 1) This data helps the analyst.
> 2) These data help the analyst.
> 3) The data helps the analyst.
> 4) The data help the analyst.

Preference depends on context. None are grammatically incorrect if usage in
reputable journals means anything. Of course (1) and (2) emphasize the
treatment of number (singular or plural) more than (3) and (4). But if
you're pointing to specific antecedents, you might want to use (1) and (2)
even though they're more likely to raise controversy from the standpoint of

Maybe you'll luck out of the issue by discovering the data didn't help the
analyst in the slightest!

--steve wax (stevewx -at- eskimo -dot- com)

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