A Singular Data Point Is A Datum, You Idiots!


data_JustGrimesThere’s a moment when you realize that you’ve become the person you hate. For me, it happened at the dinner table.

I was telling (ok, ranting to) my husband about how my employer, FiveThirtyEight, has chosen to adopt as its house style the usage of the word data as a singular noun.

“So you’ve become a pedantic asshole?” he said.

He was right, of course. It was time to let it go. My snobbery over the usage of the word data dates back to my senior year of college. In my honors thesis, I described the results of my summer research project by using the word as a singular noun (“the data is,” as I recall) and one of my committee members had crucified me for it. His was the only negative comment I received, and it stung. I was never going to make that mistake again.

Which is how I became a data as singular vigilante. Data is plural. A single piece of data is a datum. Get it right, you idiots!  Those were my knee-jerk responses to finding the word data used as a singular (and there are so many examples.)

Technically, I’m right, sort of. But language evolves. It’s no accident that I wanted to use data as a singular noun in my senior thesis — that’s the direction the word’s usage is going. And it’s why FiveThirtyEight (and Wired and the Wall Street Journal) have decided to use it as a singular noun.

Listening to myself explain my grammar outrage to my husband convinced me that it is time for me to step off of my high horse. The truth is, my pedantry over data was never really about the word anyway. It was just an opportunity for me to feel superior, and I don’t want to become that kind of person.

photo by Justgrimes, via Flickr.

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5 thoughts on “A Singular Data Point Is A Datum, You Idiots!

  1. Nice post. I, too, have finally given up and now use “data” as the singular. To be fair to us both though, I don’t think it’s about feeling superior. “Datum” and “data” are, as you know, the singular and plural form of “given” in Latin. They translate as “The given thing” and “The given things”. There’s something nice about this, something satisfying, and having this knowledge deepens the meaning of the word “data” for me. After all, “The plural of anecdote is not data”- this quotation has just that extra layer of meaning to the initiated.

    But language moves on. It creates more than it destroys. It’s nice to hold on to the old ways, but nice to welcome the new forms language will take in the coming years. I like to live in that balance point, and I suspect you probably do, too.

    Don’t get me started on composed/ comprised… 😉

  2. Learning absolutely nothing about avoiding pedantry from your example, I”ll point out that I think you meant to say “‘Data’ is plural,” not “Data is plural.”

  3. I work in a laboratory where we deal with experimental data all the time. I realize that “data” is often used to mean “information”, which seems to fit well with the singular. This makes me uncomfortable, though. I still use “data” only in the plural. Having said that, I have probably never used the word “datum” in my life. If I’m talking about one thing, I say “piece of data” or “data point” instead, since there is no confusion about whether “piece” or “point” are singular or not.

  4. OxfordDictionaries.com has just anointed “butt-dial” so the language marches proudly to the future whether I like it or not.

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