Arrant Pedantry

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The Data Is In, pt. 2

In the last post, I said that the debate over whether data is singular or plural is ultimately a question of how we know whether a word is singular or plural, or, more accurately, whether it is count or mass. To determine whether data is a count or a mass noun, we’ll need to answer a few questions. First—and this one may seem so obvious as to not need stating—does it have both singular and plural forms? Second, does it occur with cardinal numbers? Third, what kinds of grammatical agreement does it trigger?

Most attempts to settle the debate point to the etymology of the word, but this is an unreliable guide. Some words begin life as plurals but become reanalyzed as singulars or vice versa. For example, truce, bodice, and to some extent dice and pence were originally plural forms that have been made into singulars. As some of the posts I linked to last time pointed out, agenda was also a Latin plural, much like data, but it’s almost universally treated as a singular now, along with insignia, opera, and many others. On the flip side, cherries and peas were originally singular forms that were reanalyzed as plurals, giving rise to the new singular forms cherry and pea.

So obviously etymology alone cannot tell us what a word should mean or how it should work today, but then again, any attempt to say what a word ought mean ultimately rests on one logical fallacy or another, because you can’t logically derive an ought from an is. Nevertheless, if you want to determine how a word really works, you need to look at real usage. Present usage matters most, but historical usage can also shed light on such problems.

Unfortunately for the “data is plural” crowd, both present and historical usage are far more complicated than most people realize. The earliest citation in the OED for either data or datum is from 1630, but it’s just a one-word quote, “Data.” The next citation is from 1645 for the plural count noun “datas” (!), followed by the more familiar “data” in 1646. The singular mass noun appeared in 1702, and the singular count noun “datum” didn’t appear until 1737, roughly a century later. Of course, you always have to take such dates with a grain of salt, because any of them could be antedated, but it’s clear that even from the beginning, data‘s grammatical number was in doubt. Some writers used it as a plural, some used it as a singular with the plural form “datas”, and apparently no one used its purported singular form “datum” for another hundred years.

It appears that historical English usage doesn’t help much in settling the matter, though it does make a few things clear. First, there has been considerable variation in the perceived number of data (mass, singular count, or plural count) for over 350 years. Second, the purported singular form, datum, was apparently absent from English for almost a hundred years and continues to be relatively rare today. In fact, in Mark Davies’ COCA, “data point” slightly outnumbers “datum”, and most of the occurrences of “datum” are not the traditional singular form of data but other specialized uses. This is the first strike against data as a plural; count nouns are supposed to have singular forms, though there are a handful of words known as pluralia tantum, which occur only in the plural. I’ll get to that later.

So data doesn’t really seem to have a singular form. At least you can still count data, right? Well, apparently not. Nearly all of the hits in COCA for “[mc*] data” (meaning a cardinal number followed by the word data) are for things like “two data sets” or “74 data points”. It seems that no one who uses data as a plural count noun ever bothers to count their data, or when they do, they revert to using “data” as a mass noun to modify a normal count noun like “points”. Strike two, and this is a big one. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language gives use with cardinal numbers as the primary test of countability.

Data does better when it comes to grammatical agreement, though this is not as positive as it may seem. It’s easy enough to find constructions like as these few data show, but it’s just as easy to find constructions like there is very little data. And when the word fails the first two tests, the results here seem suspect. Aren’t people simply forcing the word data to behave like a plural count noun? As this wonderfully thorough post by Norman Gray points out (seriously, read the whole thing), “People who scrupulously write ‘data’ as a plural are frequently confused when it comes to more complicated sentences”, writing things like “What is HEP data? The data themselves…”. The urge to treat data as a singular mass noun—because that’s how it behaves—is so strong that it takes real effort to make it seem otherwise.

It seems that if data really is a plural noun, it’s a rather defective one. As I mentioned earlier, it’s possible that it’s some sort of plurale tantum, but even this conclusion is unsatisfying.
Many pluralia tantum in English are words that refer to things made of two halves, like scissors or tweezers, but there are others like news or clothes. You can’t talk about one new or one clothe (though clothes was originally the plural of cloth). You also usually can’t talk about numbers of such things without using an additional counting word or paraphrasing. Thus we have news items or articles of clothing.

Similarly, you can talk about data points or points of data, but at best this undermines the idea that data is an ordinary plural count noun. But language is full of exceptions, right? Maybe data is just especially exceptional. After all, as Robert Lane Green said in this post, “We have a strong urge to just have language behave, but regular readers of this column know that, as the original Johnson knew, it just won’t.”

I must disagree. The only thing that makes data exceptional is that people have gone to such great lengths to try to get it to act like a plural, but it just isn’t working. Its irregularity is entirely artificial, and there’s no purpose for it except a misguided loyalty to the word’s Latin roots. I say it’s time to stop the act and just let the word behave—as a mass noun.

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Less and Fewer

I know this topic has been addressed in detail elsewhere (see goofy’s post here for example), but a friend recently asked me about it, so I thought I’d take a crack at it. It’s fairly straightforward: there are the complex, implicit rules that people have been following for over a thousand years, and then there are the simple, explicit, artificial rules that some people have been trying to inflict on everyone else for the last couple of centuries.

The explicit rule is this: use fewer for count nouns (things that can be numbered), and use less for mass nouns (things that are typically measured). So you’d say fewer eggs but less milk, fewer books but less information. Units of time, money, distance, and so on are usually treated as mass nouns (so you’d say less than ten years old, not fewer than ten years old. One handy (but overly simplistic) way to tell mass nouns and count nouns apart (save for the exception I just noted) is this: if you can make it plural and use a numeral in front of it (five eggs), then it’s a count noun and it takes fewer.

The only problem with this rule is that it was invented by Robert Baker in 1770, and it contradicts historical and present-day usage. In actual practice, fewer has always been restricted to count nouns, but less is often used with count nouns, too, especially in certain constructions like twenty-five words or less, no less than one hundred people, and one less problem to worry about. It used to be that people used less when it sounded natural and nobody worried about it, but then some guy in the eighteenth century got the bright idea that we should always use one word for count nouns and one word for mass nouns, and people have been freaking out about it ever since.

Baker’s rule is appealing because it’s simple and (in my opinion) because it allows people to judge others who don’t know grammar. It makes a certain kind of sense to use one word for one thing and another word for another thing, but the fact is that language is seldom so neat and tidy. Real language is full of complexities and exceptions to rules, and the amazing thing is that we learn all of these rules naturally just by listening to and talking with other people. Breaking Baker’s rule is not a sign of lazy thinking or sloppy grammar or anything else negative—it’s just a sign that you’re a native speaker.

The fact that not everybody follows the simple, explicit rule, nearly 240 years after it was created, shows you just how hard it is to get people to change their linguistic habits. Is there any advantage to following the made-up rule? Probably not, aside from avoiding stigma from people who like to look down their noses at those who they deem to have poor grammar. So if you want to please the fussy grammarian types, be sure to use follow Baker’s made-up rule. If you don’t care about those types, use whatever comes naturally to you.