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Friday, November 07, 2008

The Media Say Data Are Awkward

Data is.

Media is.

Are you with me? Well, some folks aren’t.

“The data are inconclusive,” they will say. Or, “The news media are irresponsible.”

“Media” and “data” are mass nouns expressing uncountable quantities. When used as such – and they almost always are – they should be paired with the singular form of verbs. That’s my view, at any rate. And I’d say it’s well accepted.

But in academia, many folks contend these Latin-derived terms can only be used as plural nouns. “Media is” and “data is” are bad grammar to them. This view is especially prevalent on the science scene, but you’ll find it in legal scholarship as well. A lot of it. Over 10,000 occurrences of it in law review articles, according to Westlaw.

Now, I do not want to offend the thousands of law professors out there who’ve written “data are” in an article. (I don’t think I’d have any friends left.) But hearing people say “data are” drives me crazy. And when they correct me, I can’t take it at all.

Submarine_2The worst is Tom Clancy. Someone persuaded the techno-thriller mega-novelist that the singular “data” is a grammatical no-no. As a result, Clancy’s got every submariner under the Atlantic talking like a tweed-coated pipe-smoking grad student – everyone of them looking for a “datum” that will pinpoint the location of a lost Russian sub.

Grab a soy latte, Captain Grammar, and give me a break.

Actually, grab three soy lattes: One large, two media.

So, I ask you, the PrawfsBlawg readership – is “data is” what it is, or is “data is” what they aren’t?

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on November 7, 2008 at 06:40 PM | Permalink


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I vote for plurals.

Posted by: Chris | Nov 8, 2008 3:03:06 PM

I suppose you think 'criteria,' 'strata,' 'continua,' and 'spectra' are singulars as well? And what about 'their' as in "To each their own"?

Speaking like that you will come off as an imbecile; you are clearly a person who has never mastered a foreign language or encountered the problem of translating (by machine) a technical or legal document from English into a foreign language. You are in good company: no American president since Teddy was competent in a foreign language and Obama is no exception.

Posted by: Jimbino | Nov 8, 2008 1:49:50 PM

You're not the only one. A lot of people is upset over these lax applications of grammar.

Posted by: foo | Nov 8, 2008 1:16:26 PM

This post reminds me of the anecdote about Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who insisted that the word "news" was plural. He once sent a telegram to a correspondent, asking "Are there any news?" The correspondent wired back, "No, not a single new."

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Nov 8, 2008 12:46:15 PM

I prefer treatment of both as plural nouns. Both refer to multiple items, and treatment of multiple items as a single unit can lead to imprecision and error: "The media is liberal." The media are not, in fact, a faceless, monolothic entity. they are a hodge-podge of entertainment and information sources of varying quality, purpose and orientation.

The imprecision is more subtle with data. It is good, though, to remember that multiple data points are suspectible to multiple interpretations. The data can show more tahn one thing.

Posted by: john tanner | Nov 8, 2008 11:55:28 AM



Posted by: C. Zorn | Nov 8, 2008 11:19:00 AM

The converse case for the "organizational noun" answers the question for "media" fairly well. Take a look at UK usage (media and academia): "the company are", "the team are". I submit that this is logically improper; if one really means a concensus, one should say "the employees are" or "managers are" or "players are". Instead, when one uses "media", one is referring to a fairly faceless, purportedly monolithic entity — which calls for the singular, implying a thoughtless uniform action more than a thoughtful concensus.

"Data" (the word, not the referent) is a tougher case. Mr Glazier's remark also applies to aircraft positioning; NATO air controllers are even fairly careful to refer to position of a multiaircraft formation as "data". On the other hand, in biology/medicine/chemistry laboratory settings, everyone says "data is," because nobody likes to change their verb/subject agreement between the first and second run of an experiment (when, that is, they bother with verb/subject agreement in the first place, which helps explain why I was the one who used to do all the article writeups). I just don't like the sound of "datum," which to my ear creates a harsh break with the next word in the middle of a sentence.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Nov 8, 2008 11:16:08 AM

Whether linguistically correct or not, the term "datum" has used by NATO navies for decades to refer to the last known position of a submarine. I'm not a particular fan of Tom Clancey, but he did not make this up. It's part of the lingo of real Navy officers.

Posted by: Dave Glazier | Nov 7, 2008 11:34:58 PM

I thought the traditional view was singular "datum," plural "data." But I'll grant that "data" is now often treated as a mass term.

"Media" is more complicated because clearly there's singular "medium" and plural "media" when we're talking about acrylic or oil paint in an art studio or TV versus film in audiovisual entertainment. But when "the media" means "journalists," it's trickier because the intent is clearly plural, and yet we never refer to a single reporter or select group of reporters as a medium. The minute we refer to television as a medium, we're back to to talking about the technology rather than the people doing the content delivery.

Posted by: Kurt | Nov 7, 2008 8:45:17 PM

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