How a sentence sounds when read aloud or in your head can often "sound" different for each individual doing so; however, I was reading details regarding the usage of "data" and "datum" and was intrigued by the alleged usage of it and how said usage flowed within a sentence/phrase.

It is explained here that the word data should not be used as,

...the data tells us...

but rather,

...the data tell us...

Reading the first seems natural, I've heard it quite often; however, the second seems very hard to read or say - simply unnatural in my mouth. A similar situation is found with Hoi Polloi where it is incorrect to say,

...gone to meet with the hoi polloi...

but often corrected to,

...gone to meet with hoi polloi...

due to the redundancy of the term "the" (where Hoi Polloi meaning "The Many").

While my specific usage of these two situations may not be finely crafted, I believe the concept/question to be evident: Is it better to appease my audience by using a commonly used phrasing, or is it better to adhere to the correct implementation of the words/phrases?

Another consideration is my credibility. Will the readers perhaps discredit my writings due to the unfamiliar conventions utilized?

  • Data is media. I often begin my intro media course with the question what is media? I hope to draw them to both culture as well as the dictionary and for a conversation about language and english and roots in greek and latin as well as a collective use of words and their meaning. And as we define the word and its root in medium (like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost) and its ubiquity at movie theaters and MacDonald's (defined: ridiculously large, but capable of turning up to "11" for only 69 cents). Because the media is a powerful source, data is the currency of business. – user39280 Mar 11 '13 at 12:20

Your best option would be to check a dictionary as it will usually have a note to clarify such ambiguities.

ODO's entry for data notes:

In Latin, data is the plural of datum and, historically and in specialized scientific fields, it is also treated as a plural in English, taking a plural verb, as in the data were collected and classified. In modern non-scientific use, however, it is generally not treated as a plural. Instead, it is treated as a mass noun, similar to a word like information, which takes a singular verb. Sentences such as data was collected over a number of years are now widely accepted in standard English.

The data/datum question has been covered on ELU before.

Similarly, the entry for hoi polloi carries the following note:

1 To those in the know, hoi is the Greek word for the definite article the (nominative masculine plural); the phrase hoi polloi thus translates as ‘the many’. This knowledge has led some traditionalists to insist that hoi polloi should not be used in English with the, since that would be to state the word the twice. Such arguments miss the point: once established in English, expressions such as hoi polloi are treated as a fixed unit and are subject to the rules and conventions of English. Evidence shows that use with the has now become an accepted part of standard English usage.

  • 1
    Does that go for abbreviations too? I often hear people talking about the HTTP-protocol, with HTTP (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol) already containing the word. – Konerak Mar 11 '13 at 12:10
  • 4
    @Konerak Nobody is going to pull you up if you say ATM machine or PIN number. But nobody will find it odd if you just say ATM, PIN, or HTTP either. IOW, avoid the redundancy if possible. But don't fret if you do. (That said, you might want to strictly avoid them in formal writing.) FYI, these are all examples of the RAS Syndrome. – coleopterist Mar 11 '13 at 12:39
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    Plus, redundancy is not a bug in language; it's a feature. Human natural language is well over 90% redundant; and since writing only records lexical items (and not intonation, pronunciation, gaze direction, gestures, brow movement, etc), it needs all the help it can get to be even 50% redundant; more would be better. – John Lawler Mar 11 '13 at 15:22
  • We do say things like "The data tells us" but I've never seen something like "The datas tell us" which you would expect given the first scenario. – corsiKa Mar 11 '13 at 21:32

This is a fairly fundamental challenge in the way we say what we say. Unquestionably, "data" is plural. Just as unquestionably, it is used as singular in almost all instances.

In such cases, I generally try to apply the simple question of whether the "incorrect" usage confuses the picture, or hampers clarity of expression. My answer for "data" would be that we really have almost no use for the singular "datum," and it seems well understood, with no real potential for confusion, what "data" means.

So I would go with the common usage, but would not fault anyone for using the "correct" one.

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