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The question of whether "data" is plural or not has been asked many times, and won't be repeated here. For this question, take data as a plural noun or mass noun.

Is data a countable noun? Do I have a large number of data, or a large amount of data? If I'm experiencing information overload, do I need fewer data or less data?

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    I'm in the "amount" and "less" camp. Jan 5, 2017 at 19:36
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    @MarkHubbard Agreed. I'd talk about a large amount of data, and a large number of data points.
    – Mick
    Jan 5, 2017 at 19:42
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    If you take data to be a plural noun, then it is countable. Only count nouns can be counted and be plural. Jan 5, 2017 at 19:44
  • @Clare Mass nouns can however sometimes be used in the plural, as in: By the waters of Babylon and She put on airs. Jan 5, 2017 at 20:03
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    @Ronald Airs and waters are being used as (plural) count nouns in by the waters of Babylon and she put on airs. Nouns are actually neither count or mass, but we can use a noun as a count or mass noun. The OP has defined data as a plural; therefore he is using it as a count noun. Jan 5, 2017 at 21:43

5 Answers 5

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The Ngram chart for "amount of data" (blue line) versus "number of data" (red line) shows a fairly healthy number of matches for both phrases:

But appearances in this case are deceiving. A look at the Google Books matches underlying the line graphs reveals that most instances of "amount of data" use it as a set phrase, whereas the vast majority of instances of "number of data" involve instances where the search has lopped off the noun or noun phrase at the end of a longer expression: "number of data cases"; "number of data samples"; "number of data points"; "number of data objects"; "number of data mining programs"; "number of data replicas"; "number of data values"; etc.

In fact, the overwhelming preference in English is for "amount of data" (with data treated as a mass noun) over "number of data" (with data treated as a countable noun).

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  • One thing that confuses me about this question and many of the comments and answers: why can't "amount of" be followed by a plural count noun? I can find on Google Ngram a number of hits for e.g. "amount of taxes" and "taxes", while it has a kind of mass-y meaning, is still clearly a plural noun (the plural of the count noun "tax") in standard English.
    – herisson
    Jan 6, 2017 at 1:37
  • I did find this "Grammarist" article, but I don't know how reliable that site is and I think it may over-simplify the matter with its recommendation ("it’s always safer to use number in situations like this"). Google Ngram Viewer shows "number of taxes" as actually being less common than "amount of taxes", and I think only the latter is possible when you mean something like "the amount paid in taxes". Sorry to bother you about this--I'll do some more research and maybe ask a question about this if it hasn't been asked already on this site.
    – herisson
    Jan 6, 2017 at 1:48
  • @sumelic: I have to agree with your observation: data can be understood massively or granularly in the set phrase "amount of data," just as goldfish can in "amount of goldfish." But as with goldfish, data invites a massive interpretation when "amount of" precedes it. It's not that you can't use "amount of goldfish" to mean "number of goldfish[es]"; it's that we (or I) expect "goldfish" to function in a poundage sense when preceded by "amount of"—and the reason that I expect it to is that I'd expect to see "number of" used otherwise. But this sounds like circular reasoning, doesn't it?
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 6, 2017 at 1:50
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Both Oxford and Cambridge list data as a mass/uncountable noun, so it would make sense to talk about a large amount of data. I have seen individual datums referred to as data points, so you could talk about a large number of data points.

data - noun [ U, + sing/pl verb ]

information, especially facts or numbers, collected to be examined and considered and used to help decision-making, or information in an electronic form that can be stored and used by a computer:

  • The data was/were collected by various researchers.
  • Now the data is/are being transferred from magnetic tape to hard disk.

Cambridge Dictionary

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  • +1 for succinctly putting this to bed without the usual bickering. :-) Jan 5, 2017 at 20:10
  • "Individual datums" are also referred to as "observations".
    – JenSCDC
    Jan 7, 2017 at 14:15
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"Data" is usually non-count

It seems "amount of data" and "less data" are both more commonly used than "number of data" and "fewer data". Google Ngram Viewer:

enter image description here

As Sven Yargs points out, there are a lot of imaginable sources of false hits for "number of data", so its actual prevalence is probably even lower than this implies. I was however able to find an example of someone who uses it:

Then again, this example may be suspect since normally, we would actually expect a singular verb after "the number of [plural_noun]". In other words, Bevan seems to have made at least one hyper-correction, so it's possible that his use of "number of" is itself an error.

Perhaps this means it is treated as a non-count noun. There seems to be general consensus that this is the criterion for using amount of vs. number of, or less vs. more (although it's also well-known that people actually use less in more situations in speech than would be expected from this principle).

This may not be directly related its grammatical number

I know you didn't ask about the plurality of data, but since it was brought up in some comments and answers, I thought I'd like to write about it as well. I actually am unsure if the apparent preference for treating data as non-count can be taken as evidence for the grammatical number of the noun one way or another. Of course, singular mass nouns like money take amount of and less. But another noun that seems to be treated similarly, yet is clearly plural in standard English is taxes (it's the plural of the count noun tax):

enter image description here

In many cases, it's not actually possible to replace "amount of taxes" with "number of taxes" without changing the meaning of a sentence, or rendering it nonsensical (for example, in "The amount of taxes he paid was ridiculous" or "the amount of taxes imposed shall not exceed $___"). So it seems to me that the advice of resources like Grammarist (which says "it’s always safer to use number in situations like this [with count nouns]) is not quite correct.

I suppose a pedant who found "amount of taxes" unacceptable could use another construction, like "amount paid in taxes" or "amount levied in taxes". I find it hard to think of a similar alternative for "data". If you truly mean "a number of items of information" then "number of data" would be correct, but I think this isn't quite what people mean when they say "amount of data". But perhaps its close enough in meaning for some people. Here are some examples of "fewer data" being used with this meaning:

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I think there are several different points here that should be taken into account. I must state that the following is all anecdotal and based on my own observations.

First, there is the question of use/register. In e.g, statistics, science, and academic papers in general, data is a (countable) plural word, whereas in day-to-day spoken English, in the UK at least, it is usually taken as a singular (mass) noun and requires a singular verb. In the latter case, amount would be perfect as it is also (and grammatically) a mass word.

Second, there is a trend in US English for mass nouns to be converted into countables and, as in the case of so much other American English, this trend is spreading to other English-speaking countries, and especially to the younger generations therein. So, whether you use amount or number can very much depend on the context.

That said, how about some alternatives? I would suggest quantity can be used for both countables and uncountables and volume of data could also be used/preferable (especially when talking about Big Data, for example).

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This question has no answer in the abstract.

I advocate applying a simple test to determine the meaning of the noun where it is being used. My test is to simply ask, "What is meant here?" Does the phrase say, "How much [mass noun] or "How many [countable noun]"?

For a noun like data, the use of amount or number assigns the mass/countable attribute to the noun and the question becomes: "which one is appropriate for the context?. The only thing to be considered is the question of whether the phrase ends up saying what you meant to say.

For example, a doctor might want to know the number of prescription drugs a patient has taken for the same aliment; while the police might want to know the total amount of illegal drugs a suspect has in the trunk of his car. The number of drugs says how "many", the amount says how "much". The patient may be taking three drugs; one for pain, and two others to control weight gain. The suspect may have 45 kilos of drugs. How "many" drugs is the patient on? How "much" contraband does the suspect have.

It is all about MEANING, not just SYNTAX.

On a lighter note, it seems unfair that "less" and "fewer" can be used only for mass and countable nouns respectively, while "more" can't go wrong.

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  • This is convincing in the abstract, but more needs to be said about how it applies to the specific case of data, that the question is about. Which use of data would be analogous to a doctor asking how many drugs is patient has taken for the same ailment?
    – jsw29
    Jan 24 at 16:21

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