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I know that the singular of data is datum. I know that data is a plural.

However, common usage of the word "data" suggests it is used as a "collection of data".

Here is [the collection of] data.

In which case, is the word data now a singular again, or still the plural? If so, what is the correct use of the word data and datum now?

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As no less a figure than the literary editor of The Time put it...data isn't what they used to be. –  Brian Hooper Oct 10 '10 at 19:29
    
@BrianHooper: The Time? I know "The Times" (of London) and "Time Magazine". I suspect you missed the "s", but I'm not sure. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 30 '11 at 20:27
    
@jae, you are right. The Times, of London. Spotted the typo just after it was too late to correct it. –  Brian Hooper Jan 31 '11 at 7:01
    
tchrist's answer to this subsequent question is also of great interest. –  StoneyB Sep 16 '12 at 19:18
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6 Answers

up vote 16 down vote accepted

There are two conflicting usages. For example, a Google search for "the data suggest" returns 10,000,000 results, but a search for "the data suggests" still returns almost 2,000,000 hits.

Wiktionary says:

data uncountable or plural noun
1. Plural form of datum: pieces of information.
2. (uncountable, collectively) information.
3. A collection of object-units that are distinct from one another.

Usage notes

This word is more often used as an uncountable noun with a singular verb than as a plural noun, with singular datum.

Merriam-Webster says:

Definition

1: factual information (as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation <the data is plentiful and easily available — H. A. Gleason, Jr.> <comprehensive data on economic growth have been published — N. H. Jacoby>

[...]

Usage Discussion

Data leads a life of its own quite independent of datum, of which it was originally the plural. It occurs in two constructions: as a plural noun (like earnings), taking a plural verb and plural modifiers (as these, many, a few) but not cardinal numbers, and serving as a referent for plural pronouns; and as an abstract mass noun (like information), taking a singular verb and singular modifiers (as this, much, little), and being referred to by a singular pronoun. Both constructions are standard. The plural construction is more common in print, perhaps because the house style of some publishers mandates it.

Emphasis mine.

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As a side note, apparently in French it is sometimes insisted that "information" be used only as a singular. e.g. "les informations sont...". –  Seamus Oct 6 '10 at 10:35
    
"Life of its own" describes it quite well. Such developments happen on occasion. Compare "people". –  Peter Eisentraut Oct 6 '10 at 10:56
    
About "the data suggest" vs. "the data suggests": Could this be a British vs. American thing, like "the police suggest" vs. "the police suggests"? –  Peter Eisentraut Oct 6 '10 at 10:57
    
@Seamus: same goes for many languages, including many Germanic ones. –  RegDwigнt Oct 6 '10 at 11:07
    
I had never heard "the data suggest". I find it interesting how the google results for it are mainly scientific publications, where the results for "the data suggests" are more informal and more familiar to me. –  Stefan Monov Oct 7 '10 at 14:26
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"Datum" is an irrelevant, because it is simply not true in modern English that 'datum' is the singular of 'data': even those who use 'data' as plural do not refer to one of the individual pieces of data as a datum.

Edited: Apparently I was wrong in this. I do not recall ever having met the usage, so I was generalising inadvisedly. Sorry.

I have always used 'data' as a mass noun, so said 'the data is'. I am aware that many (most?) academic publishers insist on 'the data are'.

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Er, I have seen "datum" used quite often in English… why do you say it's not? –  ShreevatsaR Oct 6 '10 at 16:33
    
I agree that the use of "datum" is vanishingly small (speaking for the US, anyway). I am surprised to hear anyone saying that they encounter "datum" often. –  Kosmonaut Oct 7 '10 at 1:29
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@Kosmonaut, @Colin: I started typing a comment here but it was too long: I've left it as an answer. I have encountered the word "in the wild" (without looking for it) at least a few dozen times. –  ShreevatsaR Oct 7 '10 at 8:21
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@ShreevatsaR: Does that mean it is used "quite often"? –  Kosmonaut Oct 7 '10 at 15:07
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@Kosmonaut: Certainly. It's sufficiently "quite often" to strongly disagree with claims like "vanishingly small", "simply not true in modern English that 'datum' is the singular of 'data'" or "even those who use 'data' as plural do not refer to one of the individual pieces of data as a datum"". I can name many words that are used less often but are still part of modern English. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Oct 7 '10 at 16:32
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As others have said, "data" is often used these days as an uncountable noun, either in the singular or plural. However, it is still also used as the plural of "datum". This answer is just to show that "datum" is also still a part of English, provoked by another answer that strangely claims that it isn't. (Too long for a comment.)

Looking through Google News gives, from recent news results:

The most interesting datum to me in the National Journal/Pew poll is…

…a superficial news item about one datum.

"… with a single datum, you can’t say anything about…"

…going to define the datum from which Mahindra…

God defend us from a man of one datum, particularly if that man is an economist, and particularly if the datum is wrong.

…a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.

Of course, as the authors of the article are quick to point out, a crucial datum is missing: the percentage of all published fiction written by men versus women.

Researchers in some labs are irresponsibly subjective in their analyses: any turn of the head is counted as a positive datum.

All these (and many more; I got tired) in a span of two weeks. Among these publications are national and local newspapers, student magazines, and blogs. There also appear to exist standard phrases like "poverty datum line" and "chart datum level" (of rivers). Of course, there are also plenty of occurrences in the classical literature. (It occurs several times in the Sherlock Holmes canon I read as a child. :-))

Sure, "datum" not the most common of words, but claims that it's not a part of modern English, or that you need to wear a toga to use it, seem unjustified.

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This does not mean that data corresponds to datum as a plural in the grammar of most people. For example, one can easily search Google News and find plenty of usages of "piece of data", which would not make much sense if datum is active in one's grammar. Sure, datum is an English word (and I don't think Colin Fine claims otherwise), but just because the rare word datum means one piece of data, and data is the plural in Latin of datum, doesn't mean that the two must correspond in English as a singular-plural pair. And I don't think they do for just about anyone. –  Kosmonaut Oct 7 '10 at 14:57
    
@Kosmonaut: I did not (and do not) claim that 'data' is always the plural of 'datum' for everyone, only that some people do use 'datum' as the singular of 'data', contrary to Colin Fine's claim (which I still find bizarre). Please see RegDwight's answer, that there are two conflicting usages: my claim is that both usages exist. If you really claim that no one uses datum-data as a singular-plural pair, I could find examples of people who do, but I hope you won't make such a claim. :-) [Also, a word used so many times in two weeks is not "rare" according to me, but your definition may differ.] –  ShreevatsaR Oct 7 '10 at 16:34
    
sorry, but you haven't actually shown that the use of "datum" in these examples is the singular of "data". It's just a word, one used for emphasis. At least that's how I read these examples. You say "some people do use 'datum' as the singular of 'data'" All you've shown is that "some people do use 'datum'", period. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 30 '11 at 20:37
    
@jae: See my comment just above yours. I only posted my answer in response to the (very startling) claim that 'datum' is not part of modern English, and that people 'do not refer to one of the individual pieces of data as a datum'. And what do you think the meaning of 'datum' is in these examples (note again: they're all from within a span of two weeks), if not an individual piece of information? –  ShreevatsaR Jan 31 '11 at 4:16
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From the NOAD:

data /ˈdædə/ /ˈdeɪdə/
noun [treated as sing. or pl.]
facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis. See also datum.
• Computing the quantities, characters, or symbols on which operations are performed by a computer, being stored and transmitted in the form of electrical signals and recorded on magnetic, optical, or mechanical recording media.
• Philosophy things known or assumed as facts, making the basis of reasoning or calculation.

USAGE Data was originally the plural of the Latin word datum, something (e.g., a piece of information) given. _Data_ is now used as a singular where it means information : this data was prepared for the conference. It is used as a plural in technical contexts and when the collection of bits of information is stressed: all recent data on hurricanes are being compared. Avoid datas and datae, which are false plurals, neither English nor Latin.

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"Datum" is still singular and data is "plural" The word is similar to "media" which is the plural of "medium"

Because the singular is not used that much, people seem to forget that it exists.

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Hi John! Welcome to EL&U. Thanks for taking the time to answer. While your answer is factually correct, it doesn't add anything over all, since RegDwight has already answered this question comprehensively. You might get more satisfaction looking through newer questions that are not already thoroughly answered. –  Matt Эллен Aug 21 '11 at 8:26
    
In fact, I'll say data 'is' singular as well as plural. –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 22 at 16:45
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The word 'data' has become "overloaded."

When you write a program in certain programming languages, the structure of the language allows you to assign a different meaning to a symbol than the language would normally use; this practise is referred to as "overloading" the symbol.

Jargon terms for a concept often overload existing English words; this is because the people who invented the jargon either did not want to or were unable to construct neologisms to cover the concept (or the concept was close enough to the original that neologism would have confused the issue).

The "data" that you feed to a computer, regardless of the number of items, is just such an overloaded concept. While the original word (which is still used in statistics and scientific circles) did indeed have "datum" as a singular form of "data," computer science has overloaded the meaning to where any sort of information, whether singular or plural, is "data."

At least, that's my interpretation of the matter; your mileage may vary.

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"Overloading" is itself an overloaded term ;). In this context, you have a more precise meaning being replaced by the one lay-usage - rather than the other way round of jargon overriding something less specific. Is this still overloading? Pondering further: is this overloading either a) a way to allow ambiguity in more formal systems or b) a mechanism for language evolution? –  jamesh Oct 10 '10 at 22:03
    
I think that it's a matter of language evolution, myself. Non-formalized languages (those that are not artificial nor have a governing authority delineating their proper usage--so, most of them outside of French ;-P) have this sort of meaning-creep over time as people either use words in a poetic fashion that catches on or make mistakes with the 'proper' meaning often enough. –  munin Oct 12 '10 at 15:27
    
Continuing with the biological evolution metaphor, this would be an example of adaptive radiation. –  jamesh Oct 28 '10 at 13:57
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