On Language

A Scientist's Appeal: Data, Language And Men's Hats

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istockphoto.com
hat
istockphoto.com

Most of us remember from science class that data, a plural noun, should appear with a plural verb. But in every day usage many of us, myself included, are apt to say "the data is" instead of "the data are."

In an effort to steer us back on track, Robin Taylor, a biology professor and NPR listener from Columbus, Ohio, offered this request:

I realize that my asking this is probably a lost cause, like asking that all men please go back to wearing hats (or that "pedophile" be pronounce "peed-o-phile" rather than "ped-o-phile," which means lover of feet), but here goes: is there any possibility of NPR treating the word "data" as a plural noun, which it is? The singular is "datum." The form, then, would be "These data are........"

I love NPR and refer to it all the time in teaching my college biology class, but after teaching my class the proper use of the word, I must explain the discrepancy when they hear the word used on the radio. I realize that all languages are "alive," that they change, and that this may be part of the change. But my scientist's heart suspects that this loss of treating the word "data" as a plural is less an outcome of a living language and more the result of people not conducting their lives very scientifically.

Speaking of which, even today, I loved the story on depression in which you refer to the problems with lack of a blinded placebo-control group. It is a perfect of example of why I direct my students to NPR as a reliable source of scientific news. Thank you.

According to Webster's New World College Dictionary Fourth Edition—NPR's "official" dictionary—the plural form is still often used by scientists. But Webster's also notes that "data" now usually appears with a singular verb, as "data is." The Associated Press Stylebook, also used by NPR, gives a nod to the traditional plural usage, but accommodates the singular use as well:

Some words that are plural in form become collective nouns and take singular verbs when the group or quantity is regarded as a unit.

The data is sound. (A unit.)

To figure out how that translates to NPR's reporting, we did a quick transcript search of NPR-produced programs in 2011 – Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, Weekend Edition, and All Things Considered Weekend.

The good news for Taylor and other language traditionalists: the plural use is not completely extinct. The phrase "data are" appeared in 17 stories. The bad news: "data is" appeared in 39.

As Taylor himself said, languages are alive and change over time. It appears to our office, however sadly, that this is one of those times.

We're interested hearing your thoughts. Is Taylor's battle cry futile or is returning to the scientific, plural use of data possible? And, while we're at it, can we bring back men's hats?

Lori Grisham is the assistant to the ombudsman. Edward Schumacher-Matos edited this piece.

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