The Data Are Speaking

I have more than my share of pet peeves about language usage, none greater than the ubiquity of the phrase "I could care less" when what people are actually trying to say is "I couldn't care less" (it's one thing to say something wrong, but something else entirely to say the opposite of what you're trying to say, for frack's sake). But whenever I'm feeling doctrinaire, I think of "February," and ask myself whether I really think anyone ought to be saying "Feb-ROO-air-ee." Then I get sad thinking about how in 50 years, we'll all be saying "nuke-yoo-lar" like a nation of George W. Bushes. The point is, pronunciation and usage are constantly evolving, and there's only so long you can hold out for what's correct against what's common.

Which brings me to "data." Although I agree with Kevin Drum about most things, I found out today that he and I have different ideas about this word:

But I won't rest until they — and everyone else — accept the plain fact that data should be treated as a singular noun in all circumstances. The worst offenders here are generally in academia, and I've always wondered if they actually talk the same way they write. (I mean in casual speech, not prepared remarks.) I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone say "data are," but lots of diehards with PhDs still use it in print.

I say "data are," and I've heard other people (academics, admittedly) say it in casual speech. This probably has to do with the fact that I did spend a portion of my life in academia, studying something that is also commonly rendered as a singular when in fact it's a plural: media. "Media" is the plural of "medium," just as "data" is the plural of "datum." So when I talk about "the media," I conjugate it properly, as in, "The media are stupid."

That being said, I'll grant you that I feel a twinge of discomfort every time I use "data" as a plural. It's the feeling that comes from knowing that although you're right, you also probably sound pedantic and pretentious. So I guess if Kevin's campaign to stamp out any plural usage of "data" succeeds, I won't be all that upset.

Just don't say "I could care less" in my presence.

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