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


2 thoughts on “Data is as Data were. Emerging Language in Everyday Speech.

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