Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 99: Data Control

This week on Grammar Grater, we're looking at a tricky word that presents a confusing picture when it comes to verb agreement. That word is data.

Data comes from a Latin word meaning "given." It's the plural of the word datum and, according to Fowler's Modern English Usage, it is proper to treat data as a plural in English. For example:
The data are insufficient.


Fowler's provides further information:
"Data is usually considered as a number of items and construed as a plural. For example, 'Most of the network-security data were classified.'"

That said, the word data is flexible. Fowler's Modern English Usage, the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Webster's New World College Dictionary and the Gregg Reference Manual all explain that the word data can be used with singular verbs.

According to Fowler's:
"In computing and allied disciplines, data is treated as a singular noun and with a singular verb. For example: 'Data is stored on a disk' or 'The raw data for the solution lies in two vast collections of information.'"

The Gregg Reference Manual provides further explanation — and broadens the use of the word data to areas outside the world of computing. Here's what it says:
"The noun data, which is plural in form, is commonly followed by a plural verb in technical and scientific usage, when the word refers to several distinct bits of information. For example, 'The data assembled by six researchers are now being compared.'

"In general usage, data in the sense of 'information' is followed by a singular verb. For example: 'The data obtained after two months of experimentation is now being analyzed.'"

In sum, when data is used in a scientific setting — referring to distinct bits of information — verbs take the plural form. When data simply means "information" in general, then a singular verb fits the bill just fine.

SOURCES: Fowler's Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield, the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Webster's New World College Dictionary and the Gregg Reference Manual by William A Sabin.

MUSIC: "Da da da" by Trio; "Pocket Calculator" by Kraftwerk

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