Data is as Data were. Emerging Language in Everyday Speech.

Writing Tips

Data, Media, Rice, Water. Emerging language and winds of change.

Language changes. It grows. It adapts. Nouns are turned into verbs (e.g. “friend”), words take on many meanings (e.g. “peer”) and subject/verb agreement transforms. Scholars know that the phrase “correct English” is a misnomer at best, a downright falsehood at worst. Languages are living things that grow and change.

We are on the cusp of one of those changes now. It truly could go either way. As a language geek, it’s an exciting event to watch. How will the now-ubiquitous words “data” and “media” be treated? Will the educational system catch up and drill the original usage of “data” and “media” as being plural nouns that require a plural 3rd person verb agreement? Or will colloquial usage overwhelm the textbooks and the subject will be simple, single and quick?

Let’s go over some details.

Datum is a single piece of data. Data are more than one datum.
Medium is a single type of media. Media are all the mediums lumped together.

The subject/verb agreement with these words traditionally went like this:

The datum is written on a piece of paper.
The data are enclosed in the report.

The medium was radio.
The media were newspapers.

(Or, in the case of journalists as a group of people: “The media report a storm coming up the coast.”)

Usage of “data” has morphed into the singular subject/verb agreement for many colloquial speakers (that means “regular people speakers and not specialized people like academics, scientists, etc.) “Data” and “Media” are being treated as mass nouns, like rice (e.g. “The rice is in the cooker”) or water (e.g. “This water is cold!”). Now we are seeing usage like “The data doesn’t support your claim.” and “The media isn’t welcome in the courtroom.”

We are seeing the singular subject/verb agreement usage more with the word “data” and with the word “media.” I don’t think most people would have “medium” on the tip of their tongue if they were asked to name the singular of media, but journalists have been drilling us with their self-referential phrase forever. So we know what “media” is supposed to sound like in a sentence, for the most part (If “data” usage changes, then I think “media” won’t be far behind. But we’ll leave “media” be for now).

“Data” is another problem entirely. I’ve been intimately aware of the usage rules around the word “data” for my entire adult life. When I was 18, I started at the University of Pittsburgh in a Psychology major, and I was quickly treated to a grammar lesson I didn’t soon forget. After years of psychology and biophysics research, then on to business research, I knew the expected plural subject/plural verb conjugation for the word “data.”

But here we are at the crossroads, where seemingly everyone else besides the hardcore researchers use “data” as a mass noun. Sure, the Twitterati will do their best to knock you back into their supposed knowledge and comfort zone as soon as they see a wayward “data is” or “data was.” But they aren’t looking at the big picture. Let’s think for a moment about data. This is a perfect example of why language changes. A cultural change happens, then language reflects that change. (I am now going to start using “data” as a mass noun. That means I will be using it in the singular, so those of you who are grammar-feint-of-heart, I suggest you stop reading now. But I do wish you would just hold your breath for a second and hear me out.)

Data is everywhere. It is coming at us from all sides. We have many convenient ways to get data. We have to make an effort to avoid data. We are data junkies. All of us. But in the end, we see data as a separate entity from ourselves. It is something we consume, like water. We choose to step up to it like we walk to the ocean’s very edge. We make the choice to dip our toes into it, or run away. We have our favorite ways of getting data, just like we have our favorite shoreline beaches. But we see it as a huge mass, almost one big entity of which we take small parts. We make distinctions on its bits. The grains of rice are in the container, but my rice is already cooked. No drops of water are on the window but water is leaking in everywhere. Bits of data are scattered around the internet but my data is on my blog. Wikipedia defines as mass noun as such:

“In linguistics, a mass noun (also uncountable noun or non-count noun) is a common noun that presents entities as an unbounded mass.”

An unbounded mass. Think about that. Think about all the info on the internet. Doesn’t it feel like “an unbounded mass” to you?

(ok grammarians, you can let out that breath. wasn’t too bad, was it?)

See what I mean? Which way will this go? Will data be accepted as a mass noun in the general culture? Or will everyday speakers be exposed to the word in its plural form so much that the phrase “the data are everywhere” sounds right to them?

Let me know what you think in the comments. Your data is/are important to me.

Christine Cavalier, PurpleCar

Nude – Review by Marc Schuster


Reading Nuala Ni Chonchuir‘s new collection of short stories, Nude, I am reminded of Bob Dylan’s observation in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” that “even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked,” for the stories in this collection all feature characters who, at one time or another, find themselves in various stages of physical or emotional undress. What emerges as this occurs throughout the collection is a sense of our shared humanity, the idea that beneath everything–beneath our clothing, beneath our posturing, beneath all of the accoutrements of modern living–we are all majestically vulnerable.

This sense of vulnerability comes across most clearly in the story “Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes in a Mirror: We are Not Fake!” when a deranged fanatic takes a blade to a work of art. What makes this story so engaging and inventive is that Chonchuir tells it from the painting’s point of view. As a result, the reader gets a sense of the strange mixture of innocence and ennui that a work of art like Nudes in a Mirror might endure as it traverses the world on a tour of art galleries and museums–and of the shock that such a work might experience upon being attacked. At its root, however, such experiences are so human, so natural, that it’s impossible not to see ourselves mirrored in the work itself. Like Lichtenstein’s Nudes, we are ourselves in some ways “modeled from models” (to borrow the author’s phrase). At the same time, however, this doesn’t make us any less real or any less human–a point the story makes clear when the attacker screams “Est is eine Falschung! It is a fake!” and the Nude endures a series of wounds.

As with “Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes in a Mirror: We Are Not Fake,” works of art take center stage in a number of pieces in this collection. Notably, a short piece titled “Ekphrasis” juxtaposes the cover of Bow Wow Wow’s See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over. Go Ape Crazy! album with works by Picasso and Manet. Likewise, a story titled “An Amarna Princess Up North” explores the inner workings of the mind of a country-bumpkin-cum-master-art-forger. In these and other instances, Chonchuir ponders not only the human form but all that it means to us. In essence, she ponders what it means to be human.

Needless to say, artistic nudes are not the only nudes depicted in this collection. Particularly moving is a piece titled “Before Losing the Valise, but Mostly After,” in which the author reconstructs the events surrounding the fabled disappearance of Ernest Hemingway’s earliest manuscripts. Here, the well-meaning Hadley Hemingway packs her husband’s life’s work into a valise only to lose it on a train bound for Switzerland. The meltdown that ensues is painful, and it doesn’t take the hindsight offered by history to know that the relationship is doomed despite Ernest’s halfhearted optimism that the valise might turn up.

To say the least, Nude is a wonderful collection from a wonderful writer. I was enchanted by Chonchuir’s collection of poetry, Tattoo: Tatu, and I’m glad to discover that her way with words extends to the realm of prose. Exploring nudity in all of its forms, Chonchuir explores humanity–and does so with the skill and practiced craft of an artist.

Pool Hopping by guest blogger Elizabeth Mosier



I'm the girl hiding her eyes.

I learned to dive in order to show up my big brother Andy, who trembled visibly at the plank’s edge while our swimming instructor at the Phoenix Swim Club tried to coax him into the deep end of the pool.  Then as now, my brother was my moral compass; I secretly admired the way he refused to jump to prove himself.  When my turn came, though, I was compelled to leap into the unknown by some instinct I didn’t fully understand — and was then compelled by expectation to repeat this false act of bravado over and over again.  I was scared, but by pretending to be bold, I learned to love diving:  the chilly moment of impact, the explosion at the water’s surface, the stunning quiet below.

This begins to explain how I grew into an “over imaginative” teenager prone to nightmares and poetry, a girl who found herself one summer night, at fourteen, hiding in another family’s oleanders, clothes dripping with water from that family’s pool.  I crouched there, along with two friends who shall remain nameless, straining not to scream from anticipation and fear.  We breathed quickly, taking gulps of hot, heavy air that tasted like coconut and citrus, sweat and cooling mud.  We were waiting for something, anything, to happen.  Around us, the night was alive with the hiss of cicadas and another sound that defines my childhood in Phoenix:  the pulse and hum of laboring pool pumps.

That summer, it was our unspoken quest to hop every pool in our North Phoenix neighborhood.

“Hop” as in to make a series of quick, springy leaps into water contained in rectangular, pinched-oval or kidney-bean shaped pools.  “Hop” as in partake surreptitiously, without prior written permission of the pool owner who was, conveniently, asleep.

“No one’s coming,” I said finally, after we’d crouched in the bushes so long our knees were practically fused to our chins.  I pointed to a ranch-style house on the corner and whispered, “Let’s try that one!”

Our first attempt had been disappointing; after all, we weren’t out there just to make a pool-by-pool comparison or even to seek relief from the oppressive summer heat.  To put it plainly, we wanted to make something happen.  We wanted to make a noisy splash, to wake someone’s parents, to see them framed in the bedroom window:  a worried mother in hair curlers and a red-faced father shaking his fist and shouting, “You kids!”  Like most teenagers, we sought our independence awkwardly, trying to sever ties to our parents by mocking their good care.

Who are those kids? we hoped our victims would wonder.  We wondered ourselves:  Were we really bad girls sneaking out past curfew?  Or good girls bound for good colleges, who always finished their homework before tucking themselves into bed?  It is the confounding nature of adolescence to say you’ll do one thing and then to do just the opposite; to hold, against all logic, contradictory desires.  Looking back, I see how lucky we were; our rebellions were only minor blips on the trajectories set in motion by our parents.  We played at badness as we huddled together in the oleanders, half-hoping for car headlights to pursue us to our hiding place, for someone to slow, to search for us, to reveal who we were outside our families’ homes.

When it didn’t happen, we emerged from the bushes and set off for the next pool, avoiding the streetlights like burglars, trying to keep to the safety of the darkness in between.  Most of the neighborhood was asleep at that hour of the morning, like the peaceful pillow doubles that occupied our own beds.  There were lights on in a few of the houses, though, showing the guts of family life through windows arranged between the bones of walls.  This intimacy was thrilling to us; in the outdoor culture of Phoenix, we didn’t know our best friends’ houses as well as we did the shared spaces:  the schoolyard, the mountain park, the Christtown mall, the backyard pools that I naively believed everybody had. 

At the next house, we scaled the cinderblock fence and paused at the top to survey our escape route.  “No dog,” I said.   No gate either; on the way out, we’d have to get a leg-up on the branches of the orange trees that squatted near the fence. “Good pool,” someone said, as we admired the curvy water slide and shark-shaped rubber float.  “Let’s go!”

The first time I wrote about Phoenix, I was 23 and enrolled in a New York writing workshop.  Previously, at Bryn Mawr College, I’d penned unconvincing stories featuring commuter trains, skyscrapers, and on-street parallel parking, writing myself into this landscape as the hip urban character I thought I’d become when I went east for college.  But in that Manhattan classroom, I closed my eyes and saw oleanders, orange trees, a long block of ranch houses, a lighted swimming pool at midnight glowing weirdly green.  I saw three girls perched on the threshold of adulthood, straddling a cinderblock fence, and an idea began to shimmer distantly, provoking me the way those pools had at fourteen, the way the real story – the one you’re meant to tell – always does.  Writing requires a kind of boldness, a willingness to leap into the unknown.  I teach my students that you must begin with what you know, but write to discover what you don’t.

We dropped heavily, like grapefruit, onto the grass and sprinted to the pool, cannonballing into water strangely warmer than the air.  Afterwards, we ran for cover, our hearts beating out of our chests.  Citric air scraped our throats as we laughed and whispered and told it over and over.

“Did you see the lady in the bathrobe?” someone said, though there had been no lady.  “Yes!  And the carport light coming on?” someone else fibbed.  “They almost caught us!” I shrieked.  And when the coast was clear again, we slapped arms around each others’ backs and swaggered down the street.  It was almost dawn.

I had to write this story many times in order to understand it.  Now I see that pool hopping was my adolescent way of acting as protagonist, making a splash in order to make a story.  The first time I told the tale, I looked up from what I’d written and was surprised to see interest in the faces of those New Yorkers.  I learned then that my stories, set in the peculiar landscape of Phoenix, might take the reader – or the writer – someplace she hasn’t been, can’t go, might have gone.  After 30 years in the east, I still travel home this way, where I’m still that girl swaggering down the street at dawn as if she owned the neighborhood.


Writing Software. Review of Write It Now 4.


Back in November of 2009, I attempted to write 50,000 words along with other crazy people around the world. National Novel Writing Month is every November and it’s a mad rush to the finish.
The people at Ravenshead Software sent me a full version of Write It Now 4 (WrIN4) to use during that crazy month. I didn’t get to 50,000 words this year, but I gave the software a thorough 10,000-word thrashing. The software held up well.

There are more than a few software packages out there for writers. One could spend hundreds of underpaid and overworked writer dollars on these applications. Before I delve into my review of WrIN4, just know that none of these programs will write your novel or short story for you. They can help with organization, though.
The WrIN4 application, available for Mac and Windows, is deceivingly simple. The menus and tabs are easy to understand and use, but behind these screens are added drag-and-drop features that make editing almost fun. The Tools menu has helpful things in it like “Create Random Character,” which will create a character for you based on typical story archetypes. For example, the software created the character “Alexandre” for me, and gave me this description:

“Created with the Archetypes personality data using the Character type ‘Trickster’.Alexandre needs to make people happy. He loves surprises. Recently Alexandre worked as an entertainer. Bart in ‘The Simpsons’ is a typical example of this. Alexandre is fairly tall. He has a cheap coat. He has smooth skin and is extremely presentable. His hair is expensively cut. Alexandre looks strong and is extremely wiry. ”

That’s probably enough to put you over the top of your writer’s block wall right there.

I could play with the Tools section all day. I particularly like the built-in Thesaurus and reading level assessment (under “Story Readability”).
I kept in close contact with Ravenshead services throughout the month of November. Here were some of the finer points that I’d like to see addressed in the software:
*Can’t add images into the text. We are now in a multi-media age. Writing software needs to catch up. There are times we writers will want to place an image, for example, a picture of a molecule, within the text. You can’t do this with WrIN4, and I don’t know if competing software can do this either.
*The + and – buttons at the bottom of the left-hand column are teeny tiny and their function was a bit confusing. What was I adding? What was I subtracting?
*The program makes you save again to exit. This is ok for most folks, but I find it annoying to have to click through another menu when I’ve already saved the document 2 seconds earlier.

Ravenshead said that they’d look into these complaints and see if they could tweak things before their update release.

One last note: The pricing isn’t great. It’s more expensive than Scrivener, another popular writing program (for Mac only, though). I think they can lower the price a bit to be a bit more competitive.

Download the demo and tell me what you think.

Christine Cavalier

Michelle Wittle On Understanding Creative Non-Fiction

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

This is one of those terms everyone throws around and no one is man enough to admit no one really knows what the term means.

It’s simple enough. Creative non-fiction is something that is true yet it has a dash of creativity to it.

But, what does that mean in practical terms?

How do we draw the line between fiction and creative non-fiction?

I will use my own writing as an example of what not to do.

I once wrote, what I thought was a creative non-fiction essay about Barbie. However, Barbie is a doll. She is not a person (even though to my childhood self, she was more than just a doll). The subject alone made my essay fiction because I made it all up. Sure, Barbie’s actions could be real and the thoughts I gave her were mine own, but the bottom line remains; my Barbie essay was a fiction story about what her life was like in my eyes.

Fiction is made up. Creative non-fiction looks at real personal experience and adds the creative flair to it.

It sounds easy, but there are such fine lines to what fiction is and what constitutes creative non-fiction. People get confused.  I think what starts confusing people is the word creative. People immediately think because it is creative it must automatically be fake. But, think about the best story teller in your life. They may have exaggerated the truth a bit, but let’s be honest, were those things what made you pay attention to the story? No, it was the way the story was told to you. It was the storyteller’s voice and the way the storyteller presented the information to you that made you want to listen to your Uncle Henry for hours.

That is the key to creative non-fiction.

It is the way the storyteller uses his or her voice to tell you the personal experience. The storyteller’s unique eye for seeing the world around him or her and the ability to grab the audience; those are the things that push creative non-fiction.

Creative non-fiction is looking at the horrors of life and finding that small ray of hope.