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I recently put together some Google n-grams for a short piece on the transition of the word data into a singular (mass) noun: Data are Beautiful: Data's story in grammar.

There was one peculiar finding:

When starting a sentence, the trend reverses. "The data are" and "Data are" are approximately twice as common as "The data is" and "Data is". (n-gram)

The best suggestion for why, is that the writer is more careful at the beginning of the sentence (reddit comments).

Are there any actual grammatical reasons? Or, do you have any other guesses as to why the trend reverses?

If so, I'll add them to the story - and link back to here.

meta:* I'm not asking about the difference between data is and data are, so this question is not related to the earlier ones on ELU.

  • @EdwinAshworth I don't believe it is a duplicate. The OP understands that data is usually a mass noun nowadays, and asks why data are persists despite that fact. – choster Jan 22 '14 at 16:30
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    @choster: the answers at the linked thread are reasonably comprehensive. I think anything further will require a doctoral thesis. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 22 '14 at 16:37
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    Regardless of the answers in the other thread, the questions are not duplicate, and should not be marked as such. (Also, I fail to see any answer to the "why" question in the other thread.) – Marthaª Jan 22 '14 at 20:33
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    I think if you re-title your question to make it more obvious how this question is not 'data are' versus 'data is', you may catch enough attention to have it re-opened. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 23 '14 at 17:43
  • I've made the title more indicative of the question. Thanks! – philshem Jan 23 '14 at 20:07
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Here is an Ngram of sentence-beginning "The data is" (yellow) and "The data are" (green) versus later-in-the-sentence "the data is" (red) and "the data are" (blue):

As you note in your article, the sentence-beginning versions of these phrases show less of an inclination toward "data is" than the later-in-sentence versions do.

But consider this Ngram of sentence-beginning "The data shows" (yellow) and "The data show" (green) versus later-in-the-sentence "the data shows" (red) and "the data show" (blue):

Here the greater preference for the plural form at the beginning of a sentence versus elsewhere in the sentence is again evident, but more striking is the preference for the plural over the singular regardless of where the phrase falls in a sentence. Another interesting feature of this Ngram is that, for most of the years reported, sentence-beginning "The data show/shows" is slightly more common than later-in-the-sentence "the data show/shows"—a much different result than with "The data are/is" versus "the data are/is." I have no idea why this is so.

These results suggest that factors other than position in a sentence can have a powerful effect on the popularity of plural versus singular forms of data. In view of that, I would be hesitant to reach a broad conclusion about the overall impact of position in a sentence in such preferences.

A final caution involves Ngram Viewer charts in general: They are unreliable in various ways, starting with the OCR program's not infrequent misreading of publication dates and search strings, and the search results feature's variation in reported results depending on the time frame selected. They are pretty to look at, though.

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Data is the plural form of datum. If you have one point of data, it is called a datum. Like stratus and strata or errors and errata.

Now, with regard to saying data are vs. data is, that's just like UK vs US English; in the UK, people might say "BBC are reporting [...]" in reference to the fact that BBC contains many individuals who are reporting. In the US, however, people might say "BBC is reporting [...]" because BBC is a singular company and the report is being made by someone acting as a representative of the singular company. So a UK person would claim that the phrase "the data is ..." is simply incorrect.

It's a little more easy to notice when you say "The data show that [...]"; in either subset of english, it would be incorrect to say "the data shows [...]" because data is plural".

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    I say "the data shows that ..." all the time. Yeah, it used to be plural, but that is no longer necessarily the case. – Marthaª Jan 22 '14 at 20:31
  • It's certainly still the case. If you want to make data singular, then perhaps say data set, set of data, etc. Saying "the data shows" is simply incorrect. – TylerH Jan 22 '14 at 20:43
  • No it's not. 'The short answer to the [] question is that today both are accepted. However, there are people with strong preferences on both sides of the issue.' And from Wikipedia: 'Data' is most often used as a singular mass noun in educated everyday usage. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 22 '14 at 22:54
  • I guess you can put me on the side of preferring correct usage. I'll keep it in my sandbox along with literally and other such words. – TylerH Jan 23 '14 at 14:04

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