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Is “data” considered singular or plural?

Milton Friedman, the Nobel-prize winning economist used to threaten that he would "take away any graduate student's Ph.D. if they used the word data as a singular."

Proper usage of the word data is in the plural:

  • The data are very hard to gather
  • The findings follow directly from the data. They unambiguous support our hypotheses

I'm wondering though how you refer to data in the following sentence, "The analysis using the data should go quickly since I am familiar with them (??)"

I'm not sure how to correctly refer to data in the above sentence. Most people (including myself), find it hard to use the first two examples correctly. This last example seems even trickier.

Does anyone have advice on the right way to refer to data in the above sentence?

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Well this Milton Friedman dude has obviously never heard of mass nouns. It's not a singular, it just looks like one. "A data" would be singular and no Ph.D. student would ever say that. – hippietrail Dec 3 '11 at 11:22
@hippietrail: I must object. Many style guides recommend treating data as plural (after all it is the Latin neuter plural). And, no, I didn't violate that rule here: it is "[the word] data was". The singular is the now rarely used datum. – Cerberus Dec 3 '11 at 12:35
I'm not picking on you Cerberus. But if this is the exact wording of what Friedman said then he's either being disingenuous or ignorant or the worst kind of maven trying to blackmail people into keeping his favourite archaism alive. "The data" is ambiguous in that it works fine no matter whether you think "data" is a plural or a mass noun. It takes a verb or pronoun to differentiate. But mass nouns also take singular verbs/pronouns. Saying a mass noun is a singular noun is just plain wrong since only countable nouns can be singular. – hippietrail Dec 3 '11 at 12:46
The unambiguous grammatical mistake in the above sentences is using unambiguous as an adverb; it should be unambiguously. – Peter Shor Dec 3 '11 at 14:07
@Cerberus: Well your'e not alone but you're not huffing and puffing and threatening to to fail Ph.D. students over it so it doesn't matter. But this Friedman should know better and of course we that endeavour to improve a Q&A site about language usage can only benefit from knowing how to keep these clear and explain them to seekers of knowledge (-: Native speakers usually don't know about noun countability until they study linguistics, learn some other language, try to teach English, or if they dabble in some computerised language processing. Non native speakers will come up against it though. – hippietrail Dec 6 '11 at 15:46

3 Answers 3

This is an English question rather than statistics. Many Latin and Greek plurals are often used as singulars in English (agenda is an obvious example) and the word data is used both ways, as indeed is statistics (though with slightly different meanings).

If you want to keep your sanity and your PhD you should say something like:

The analysis should go quickly since I am familiar with the data.

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The article on data in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ distinguishes between These data were gathered by intensive interviewing. They show . . . and This data was gathered by intensive interviewing. It shows . . . As the article points out

This second version actually expresses something slightly different from the first: it projects the data as a mass or block rather than a set of separable items. Data thereby becomes a mass noun.

You can indeed dodge the issue by changing the sentence altogether as Henry suggests. If, on the other hand, you want to confront it head on you have to decide on how you view data. It’s difficult to pronounce on the matter without knowing the context, but you should have no hesitation in using the pronoun it rather than them if you conclude from the preceding sentences of your text that data is to be seen, to repeat the words of the article, ‘as a mass or block rather than a set of separable items’.

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Agenda has passed the threshold to singularity for nearly everyone; but, as you say, many people still adhere to data plural. If you decide to go with traditional style, treat it as plural everywhere. That includes personal pronouns:

The analysis using the data should go quickly, since I am familiar with them.

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