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The data is/are in

Donald Norris, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (I’m starting to get a better class of customer) has written to complain about our singulars and plurals.

“I enjoy reading the Sun, among other things, for the quality of the writing which is almost always very good. However, once in a while a reporter slips and an editor doesn't catch it. Here's one example:

“‘Hopkins officials said they believe the data...WASN'T compromised.’”

“The last time I looked, data was a plural noun...and I tell my students this. Now, if they read the paper (which is doubtful and sad) they'll have this to show me when I remind them that data are, not is.”

I answered that, sadly, there are  problems in the English language for which there is no clear right or wrong, no apt solution. Data is one of them.

Garner's Modern American Usage calls data a "skunked" term, meaning that there is no way to use it without irritating some group of readers.

I know that it is the plural of datum; my daughter holds a degree in Latin and Greek from Swarthmore, and I am well advised to show respect for Latin. But as Garner points out, data has, "since the 1940s, been increasingly treated as a mass noun taking a singular verb," and the singular form is growing increasingly rare, to the extent that using it can look pretentious.
 
The Associated Press Stylebook, the basis for The Sun's house style, says emphatically, "A plural noun, it normally takes plural verbs and pronouns." Then, the weasel entry: "See the collective nouns entry, however, for an example of when "data" may take singular verbs and pronouns."

Scientific usage appears to use data increasingly as a collective noun in a singular sense, as does computer science. The language appears to be headed irreversibly in that direction, and I am loath to engage our copy desk in a pointless struggle.

Would God that data were our only problem. (At least we still have some of the subjunctive with us.) There is widespread misunderstanding among journalists about Taliban, which is a plural that the news media (still a plural) insist on making singular. The singular form, talib, means “student.”

And a year ago, my learned colleague Bill Walsh got into a tussle on the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board over the sentence "An additional $18 billion in six-month bills was auctioned at a discount rate of 4.545 percent." He insisted on were, and the fur flew. Actually, either usage can be justified. If the $18 billion is considered to be a total sum, it can legitimately be considered a singular subject. (Five bushels is what my truck will hold.) But it’s hard to insist that 18 billion of anything are a singular. So context and intent should govern the decision.

Except, as with data, context is often of little help. Go figure.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:07 AM | | Comments (6)
        

Comments

Is this what Bill Walsh wanted to say?

"An additional $18 billion in six-month bills were auctioned . . ."

*An* additional?

I could buy:

"Eighteen billion additional dollars in six-month bills were auctioned . . ."

(if only I could lay my finger on those 18,000,000,000 dollar bills I had lying around here somewhere, that is)

but the singular article seems already to have made the decision that the eighteen billion dollars are not individual entities, but rather that the eighteen billion dollars is a unified quantity. The word "additional" appears to take singular modifiers, even when followed by plural nouns, unless preceded by a number. Interesting.

Mr. McIntyre, I've found your article very educational and entertaining as well since it reveals that even people for whom English is the primary language simply do not use it consistently. There is still hope for us, non-English speakers. :)

I have two degrees in English, am a retired teacher, and a perennial student of the English language who, for myself and others, insists that "data" and such as "$18,000,000,000" take singular verbs in all instances. If I can't convince people in life, perhaps I'll ask that my gravestone contain my contention that data is singular and always will be. Amen.

If you can have more than one of them (sets of data) then you can have one, and so it can be referred to singularly. Sums of money point to the idea that you can have ONE sum of money. Who really gives a rip if there are dollars, or pieces of data? They are too insignificant to be dignified by usage.
Similarly, it ices me when British usage refers to a Corporation or other entity (Taliban?) composed of individuals in plural form. The definition says "a corporation is a legal PERSON": note the singular. Same for any group or organization. Expand your view of things.

Regarding your sentence including: "$18 billion in six-month bills was issued"... Everyone has missed the point. Does "was" refer to the dollars (hint: no) or the BILLS, which are negotiable instruments worth various sums, correct? Gosh. "Bills" then is properly plural, and that is the object, so WERE is correct absolutely, there can be no debate. (My mother would say, "simplify it to: bills were issued", Right?

No, no, no!

In the sentence: "$18,000,000 in six-month bills was issued", the phrase "in six-month bills" is an unnecessary prepositional phrase and is NOT the subject. The subject is $18,000,000.
So, the question really is whether we say "Ten dollars was..." or "Ten dollars were...".
(I find using "ten" much cleaner for analysis than 18,000,000, while completely parallel.)

So, it's clear that the correct phrasing is:
"An additional $18 billion in six-month bills was auctioned..."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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