Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Data, media, strata — singular or plural?

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My ears pricked up when I heard this on a BBC radio programme:

It’s impossible to treat patients without these data.

‘Data’ is the plural form of ‘datum’ and was traditionally treated as a plural (particularly in scientific fields, apparently).  For example:

Data were gathered and analysed as part of the experiment.

However, it has become widely acceptable (despite resistance from strict grammarians) to treat ‘data’ as singular.

So, it’s perfectly OK to write, for example:

The data is unreliable and more research is needed.

But note that opinions differ and you will need to be aware of any house style rules that apply to your writing. For example, the Financial Times Style Guide specifies that ‘data’ should be treated as plural, as in:

The latest data show (not ‘shows’) that our previous conclusions were wrong.

However, The Times Guide to English Style and Usage says that while strictly plural, data can be treated as singular ‘through common usage’.

See a brief summary of this on the Oxford Dictionaries website.

See the discussions below about ‘media’ and ‘strata’.

Commonly confused words and phrases

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26 Responses

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  1. No surrender!

    Dai

    14/03/2010 at 7:20 pm

    • Hello, Dai — you mean you’re sticking with data plural, and datum singular? Yes, I don’t blame you. Especially as — small point — that’s actually correct.

      Deborah

      14/03/2010 at 7:37 pm

  2. For any meaningful estimate , conclusion, or trend analysis we need a number of observations . A single entity of observation (datum) has no analytical value hence data can be accepted as a singular entity comprising of a collection of meaningful observations with a defined objective.
    Regards

    sunil balani

    15/03/2010 at 3:08 am

    • Thank you, Sunil, that’s interesting. I just looked in a Collins English Dictionary which describes ‘data’ as ‘information consisting of observations, measurements or facts’. ‘Information’ is, of course, singular. I think it’s a topic that provokes a lot of disagreement!

      Deborah

      15/03/2010 at 8:26 am

  3. Plural, same as media. Just cuz many don’t care, why do we have to join them?

    Michael Farrell

    15/03/2010 at 3:42 am

    • Yes, ‘media’ is an interesting comparison. Oxford Dictionaries says it can be plural or singular. I think that both media and data are words that people will continue to disagree about.

      Deborah

      15/03/2010 at 8:31 am

      • Here’s an interesting example of mixing and matching between singular and plural when using ‘media’.

        The headline (in the Guardian) says:

        The media have failed the Liberal Democrats

        But in the body of the text, ‘media’ is singular:

        This was understandable, coming from the larger rightwing media, which garnished its “Vote Clegg, get Brown” message with talk of Nazi slurs and private bank accounts. But the progressive and “impartial” mainstream media fluffed its message, too.

        Agenda

        ‘Agenda’ is another interesting word in relation to this topic. ‘Agenda’ is the plural of ‘agendum’ (in Latin) but is now usually used as a singular noun, with a plural formed by adding ‘s’ (‘agendas’).

        Deborah

        29/04/2010 at 11:31 am

  4. But no one says “a media” or “the medias.” You can’t say “through the media of television.” You can’t say “Data was collected” or “Data shows….” To me, sloppy misuse shouldn’t create a new rule or accepted usage. (See, e.g., “bemused” for “amused.”) I’m all for language evolving, but only when there’s a reason or need for it.

    Michael Farrell

    15/03/2010 at 2:31 pm

  5. One more thing before I step down: most sources “credit” the computer world for popularizing “data” as singular. Maybe not the best source for good English. My engineering friend speaks with disgust about how, over 20 years ago, engineers needed a noun to describe electronic wave delay. They latched onto “latency” because it seemingly had the word “late” in it.

    Michael Farrell

    15/03/2010 at 2:48 pm

    • That latency thing is absolutely outrageous and I didn’t laugh at all when I read it. I’m glad my dictionary only gives the strictly correct usage as in the following cited example:

      “He was fired due to his repeated latency.”

      No mention of electronics there.

      Btw, I’m currently in my bunker, emerging only for tea and muffins. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

      Deborah

      15/03/2010 at 3:37 pm

  6. It’s debatable, but I’d say “number of … media is” and “media is” are both mistakes: “[The Masters golf tourney] is the only sporting event where the number of credentialed media is kept at a low level and rarely changed. It is also the only golf event where the media is not allowed inside the ropes.” (LA Times, March 17, 2010)

    P.S. I bet the writer is following house style.

    Michael Farrell

    17/03/2010 at 5:33 pm

    • Yes — house style, probably. The ‘media is’ construction doesn’t bother me, but I know it annoys a lot of people. Thanks for the interesting example, Michael.

      Deborah

      17/03/2010 at 5:47 pm

  7. “All the mainstream media have added bloggers to their websites.” (Globe & Mail, March 18, 2010)

    You couldn’t properly make that singular. (“Each of the mainstream media has added bloggers to its website”? Yuck.)

    Michael Farrell

    18/03/2010 at 2:07 pm

    • How about:

      All the mainstream media websites now have bloggers?

      Deborah

      18/03/2010 at 6:59 pm

  8. Nice!! (I edit by tweaking; you edit by fixing the problem.)

    Michael Farrell

    18/03/2010 at 9:17 pm

  9. Here’s Philip B. Corbett, standards editor at the New York Times, on ‘data’:

    Is Data Singular or Plural?

    Yes.

    The Times’s stylebook allows “data” with either a plural or a singular verb. Here’s the entry:

    Data is acceptable as a singular term for information: The data was persuasive. In its traditional sense, meaning a collection of facts and figures, the noun can still be plural: They tabulate the data, which arrive from bookstores nationwide. (In this sense, the singular is datum, a word both stilted and deservedly obscure.)

    Deborah

    07/09/2010 at 1:18 pm

  10. Also, no reason not to use “layers,” “classes,” “levels,” etc.

    Michael Farrell

    28/09/2010 at 5:41 pm

    • Yes — very good point. Thanks, Michael.

      Deborah

      28/09/2010 at 5:49 pm

  11. Strata and stratum

    Last night, I heard an art critic describe the people depicted in a painting as coming from ‘various stratas of society’. Oops.

    ‘Strata’ is the plural form of ‘stratum’. Not ‘stratas’.

    In addition, Oxford Dictionaries points out that the distinction between ‘strata’ being plural, and ‘stratum’ being singular is maintained. Therefore, it is incorrect to use ‘strata’ as singular.

    This makes for an interesting comparison with ‘agenda’. As noted above, ‘agenda’ is the plural of ‘agendum’ (in Latin) but is now usually used as a singular noun, with a plural formed by adding ‘s’ (‘agendas’).

    Deborah

    28/09/2010 at 4:44 pm

  12. Marginalia

    From the After Deadline column in The New York Times:

    Marginalia was more common in the 1800s. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a prolific margin writer, as were William Blake and Charles Darwin. In the 20th century it mostly came to be regarded like graffiti: something polite and respectful people did not do.

    A plural noun. Make it “Marginalia were more common …”

    Deborah

    09/03/2011 at 8:24 am

  13. Mantrum?

    The Guardian‘s David Marsh discussing an entry in The Telegraph‘s style guide:

    Among the entries I don’t propose to adopt is the frankly daft “mantrum, singular; mantra, plural”. The OED defines mantra as “a sacred text or passage”, with mantras as its plural. So where the Telegraph got “mantrum” from is a mystery, unless it was thinking of the Urban Dictionary definition: “a grown man throwing a tantrum”.

    Deborah

    05/04/2011 at 2:09 pm

  14. Phenomenon and phenomena

    From the Guardian‘s corrections column:

    In one edition of Saturday’s paper a subheading pluralised TV presenter Anne Robinson when it said that she was “a global phenomena”

    Deborah

    28/04/2011 at 2:27 pm

  15. I always heard that countable nouns should be treated as plurals and uncountable as singular. Data is not really countable, since there is so much information that goes with it. You can talk about a single measurement or data point, but it is the information about method, circumstance, and relationship to other measurements that cause a group of observations to become data. “Datum” has a strict meaning, and that is a reference point, from which other measurements are made.
    Until someone convinces me that we should say “these information” I’m going to use data as singular. When possible, though, I think it will be preferable to avoid assigning number to data by clever rewording.

    Tim

    20/05/2011 at 5:30 pm

    • Hi, Tim — thanks for stopping off at Wordwatch Towers; you’re very welcome.

      And many thanks for your detailed observations which, I think, chime with Sunil’s above. Your comparison with ‘these information’ is not one I’ve thought about before. Interesting!

      Deborah

      20/05/2011 at 6:04 pm

    • FWIW, in French and Spanish, which arguably hold closer to the original Latin roots, you would say the equivalent of “these informations” (“ces informations” or “estas informaciones”).

      AJ

      11/02/2014 at 6:57 pm


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