Data

Singular or plural? It has been a bone of contention for many English writers for a long time, but the vast majority have now settled on it as a singular noun in most contexts.

Yes, the origin of the word is the Latin plural of datum, but that’s not the point. Languages are dynamic and changing; if you don’t go with the flow, it can sound hypercorrect. Even when I was learning programming back in the eighties, data had become a singular noun. So:

  • use it with singular verbs: the data showsthe data is This is particularly true in IT contexts.
  • In other contexts (economics, statistics, etc.) the plural is hanging on and I wouldn’t change it when editing. American English still keeps it as a plural rather more. And you may come across a journal editor who’s a stickler. Just go with the flow.
  • If you then need to refer to a singular piece of information – a datum if you like – you can call it a data item or item of data
  • And you can avoid confusion about blocks of data as a whole using the term dataset

Another similar case that’s less advanced is media. To me, that’s still the plural of medium and using it as a singular sounds horrible. But a CD writer (if you’ve still got one of those) may tell you to “insert another media” and usages such as “the media is giving the PM a bumpy ride” are on the increase. It’ll be the norm soon enough.

Prevalence: high. The usage in Dutch is still plural, and the literal equivalent gegevens – both meaning “things that are given” – is also plural.
Frequency: very high. Outside IT contexts, data is widely made into a plural by Dutch writers.
Native: yes. Some people still insist.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

3 thoughts on “Data

  1. I think it is because English people think the meaning is equal to “information” which is singular, but Dutch people think the meaning is “gegevens” which are plural.

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    1. I guess that mindset could be part of it too! I also have a suspicion it’s because Dutch is a bit stricter about concordance of number (“een aantal is” but often “a number are” in English). But that’s another post altogether…

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