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Data

Data and media: two tricky Latin plurals and how to handle them

Your data was corrupted…

Wah! First thought: I’ve lost some work. Second thought (typical grammar geek!): shouldn’t that be ‘…data were corrupted’? In the strictest sense, yes, because it’s all a question of ensuring that you match singular subjects with singular verbs, and ditto plural subjects and verbs, a process called agreement. Easy when it’s a straightforward case, such as: she is in New York; they are in London. However, the situation becomes more complex with certain types of nouns and plurals of words which entered English from other languages, such as Italian or Latin, which is where data comes in.

You might recall that I’ve blogged before about subject/verb agreement, collective nouns, and the formation of plurals of nouns borrowed from other languages. There wasn’t sufficient space for me to cover all the bases within those articles, so I’m going to dip a toe into these grammatical waters yet again.

In particular, the usage of media and data still generates debate: I reckon they’re deserving of a blog all to themselves, so here goes. What do these two nouns have in common? Firstly, they’re Latin plurals which are now firmly established in English; secondly, many people are in a quandary about whether they should be treated as singular:

Overall, the data gives some mixed messages.

The media has a role to play in informing the public debate.

or plural:

The data were gathered from the World Resources Institute.

The media are dependent on major businesses as information sources.

All the above examples were found in edited texts on the 2.5 billion-word Oxford English Corpus (OEC), showing that, even for experienced writers, the situation can be a little bewildering:  I hope you’ll find it less so by the end of this piece.

Data

This word is the plural of the Latin noun datum, which literally means ‘something given’. The historical Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s first recorded meaning (1630) of datum in English is ‘an item of (chiefly numerical) information’, and the first citation is actually for the plural form, data. The singular form, datum, has always been much rarer than the plural in English: there are only 917 instances of this on the OEC, compared with 542,151 for data.

Datum is treated as an English singular noun and is found predominantly in scientific and technical contexts. Up until about the mid 20th century, data occurred in similar fields of study and was typically treated as a plural (‘…these data..’; ‘…the data are classified…’). OK, so we can all scoot off and devote ourselves to something more rewarding, yes? Well, no. Nowadays, data has two main meanings:

  • facts and statistics collected for reference or analysis: overall, the data gives some mixed messages. 
  • the quantities, characters, or symbols on which operations are performed by a computer: Internet 2 continues to break records for transmitting data. 

The word data in English usage has evolved: a mass noun use, recorded in the OED from the 18th century, has become increasingly common over the past 70 years, particularly in computing and general contexts. Mass nouns are those which can’t be counted (for instance, happiness, concrete, warmth) and they are always accompanied by a singular verb. Data is now treated in the same way as its near-synonym, the mass noun information. This is well established and generally accepted in standard English writing:

Data was collected over a number of years.

However, you should be aware that not everyone concurs with this: some authorities and organizations take a stricter line than others. For instance, the most recent edition of Pocket Fowler’s Guide to Modern English Usage accepts this mass noun use in general and computing contexts. The US grammar expert Bryan Garner, however, writing in Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage states: ‘The Oxford Guide allows the singular use of data in computing and allied disciplines; whether lawyers own computers or not, they should use data as a plural’.

It also depends which sphere you’re active in: in scientific and technical writing, you’re more likely to find datum in the singular and to see data treated as a plural, but in general usage, many people now agree that data can take a singular verb. The best advice is that it’s always prudent to check whether your college or work organization has a style guide which rules on contentious grammar issues such as this before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

A final point: once you’ve opted for treating data as either a singular or plural, check the rest of your writing. It’s good practice not to use data with a singular verb in one place and a plural one elsewhere, and to make sure everything else matches up grammatically too. For instance, are the following sentences good English, and if not, why?

This data were matched to a geographically based model.

There is many data of this type.

The answer is no: if data has a plural verb, as in the first example, then you should use the plural determiner these, not the singular this. Likewise, if you treat data as a mass noun with a singular verb as in the second case, then you can’t say many. Many can only be used with countable nouns (many children; many tables), so you need to use much instead, the correct determiner for mass nouns:

✓ These data were matched to a geographically based model.

 There is much data of this type.

Media

Media began its linguistic life as the Latin plural of medium. The latter entered English in the late 16th century and developed as a countable noun with a range of meanings. Just as happens with many other Latin words which are now established in English (such as aquarium and optimum), the accepted plurals are both media and mediums.

Some grammatical traditionalists believe that media (like data) should therefore be treated as a plural noun in all its senses in English and be used with a plural rather than a singular verb:

 It’s difficult to adapt plays to the cinematic format – the two media are very different.

Painting and other static visual media have limited narrative possibilities.

The media do play a role in fuelling panics.

The meaning represented by the last sentence above, ‘a channel of mass communication, such as newspapers, radio, and television; the people working for such organizations’, is first recorded in the OED in 1911. This developed in the 1920s into a collective noun, meaning ‘television, radio, and the press considered as a whole’. Collective nouns, like family or government for example, can be treated as singular or plural, as I’ve explained elsewhere. It therefore follows that it’s widely acceptable in standard English for media (in this sense) to take either a singular or a plural verb:

✓ The media is to blame for this controversy.

✓ The media are to blame for this controversy.

A further point you may wish to consider is that, as with other collective nouns, sometimes it’s more natural or idiomatic to opt for a singular verb, depending on the emphasis you want to convey. If you’re referring to mass communications as an industry or sphere of activity, it may sound more natural to use a singular verb:

The media is to blame for this controversy.

Whereas if you’re talking about the people who work as journalists and reporters, it’s often more suitable to use a plural verb:

The media were camped out on her doorstep all night.

A note of caution: some authorities and style guides are adamant that media should only ever take a plural verb, so always check the policy of your organization.

The development of alternative plural forms: medias and datas

Finally, a slight digression. Are your grammatical hackles raised by the following sentences?

I was looking for technical datas.

My grandfather took a data from his own excellent heart.

The essential quality of democracy relies on a democratically controlled media.

The term had long been used by Soviet medias as a synonym for foreign intelligence agencies.

I have to admit that I looked askance at these when I first researched them in the OED and elsewhere! However, if you consider data and media to be singular, I guess there’s a certain logicality behind the impulse to use them with the indefinite article a, and to create a plural form with the regular English -s ending.

The OED‘s evidence shows that the plurals datas (first recorded in 1645) and medias (appearing in 1927) have a long history and crop up in varied sources, from scientific and academic journals to The Times. This doesn’t mean that they’re accepted by everyone today, though. Some authorities sit very firmly in the ‘anti’ camp, with Pocket Fowler stating ‘above all, never write a media or the medias‘ and Bryan Garner remarking: ‘medias, which has recently raised its ugly head, can only be described as illiterate’. So my advice would be to handle these forms with care, unless you know they’re approved in the context within which you’re working.

A handy summary

Data and media can take either a singular or plural verb in standard English, but be consistent within a piece of writing, always check the style policy of your organization, and make yourself familiar with the grammatical debate that exists around them. Following these simple tips will ensure that you won’t come to the attention of the grammar police!

 

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.