Writing | The Data Wars

The word data is derived from the Latin word, datum.

In Latin, datum is singular and data is plural. Technically, this is also true in English, and scientists, mathematicians, English teachers and grammar aficionados rigidly follow this distinction.

In their world, data are plural.

English, however, is a wonderfully fresh and resilient language with a few nifty grammar twists. One of these is the “group” rule. Briefly, this rule says that groups acting in concert or as a unit can be referred to in the singular form. Here’s an example of this phenomenon:

Management is working to resolve the issue.

In the example, management is comprised of many people working together to solve a problem. The use of the singular verb (is) reinforces that no matter how many individuals are involved, management itself is a unified entity.
As a result of this rule, many of us have for decades referred to "data" as a unified group and used singular verbs. It seemed natural, logical and practical. Again for decades, grammarians and linguists have gleefully pointed out the error of our ways.

Today, the data-is-singular error usage has become so widespread and commonly accepted in business and many other arenas, it now falls under the obscure but useful grammar device known as You Decide.

The You Decide rule is simple. The next time you refer to, describe or cite data, you decide whether data is singular or plural. Then, write and speak accordingly.

Two cautions. First, be consistent, so you and your audience don’t get confused. Second, be forewarned. If you work in higher education, science or research environments, it’s likely you’ll be challenged for your willingness to participate in this grammar rebellion.
Should the exchange get heated, feel free to send this article to any challengers. For additional backup, refer them to Action Grammar, one of the most useful grammar books available.

My work here is done. Let the data wars begin.



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