Data and Datum

Once again I am at a conference where some old timer has beaten the pulpit about the plurality of the word “data.” It is hard to think of something so simple that can bring such shame to the otherwise brilliant person who accidentally slips into the common usage of “data” as a singular. The eyebrows in the audience raise, the nods of disapproval start, and the speakers slips into uncontrollable sweating and blushing.

Surely it is time to relieve ourselves of this ancient differentiator and follow our progenitors who were brave enough to start writing in English or German or Spanish rather than in the Latin that protected their words from ingestion by commoners. In this quest, my prophet is Bill Walsh., whom I hope doesn’t find this blog post since it surely needs a review by a copy editor. Walsh’s Book The Elephants of Style has been my Bible from which I have proselytized my students to bravely say “data” in the way that they actually use it in their brains.

Hopefully without violating copyright rules, here is Walsh’s description of use of data, datum, media, and medium:

Data and Media

To many, the use of these words in their original plural form is a litmus test for literacy, so it takes some brvary to deviate from the norm. But I think the words are now singular in most cases.

Data was a plural word when its singular form was still alive. When was the last time you saw datum anywhere but in a discussion of this issue? The purists are trying to keep the singular form on life support, but I say it’s time to pull the plug and acknowledge that data is a collective noun, like information.

Media is a plural whent it regers to the plural of medium, but…usually it doesn’t. When an artist works in mixed media, that’s a plural usage. Oil painting is a medium, collage art is a medium, sculpture is a medium.

The news media began as a similar plural term—it referred to print, radio and television. The plural usage still exists, with the online world as another medium, but usually when people refer to the media (meaning the news media), they’re using it as a collective singular. That singular often overlaps with the print-radio-television-and Internet plural that I described, but listen more closely and it’s clear that thsoe media are not what people have in mind.

Use the “mediums” test: If you can’t find a medium in the media that is/are being mentioned, media cannot be a plural. AB, CBS, NBS and Fox are part of the media, but neither ABC nor CBS nor NBC nor Fox is a medium. Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, tom Brokaw and Brit Hume are part of the media, but not one of them is a medium (though Sam Donaldson might be). (Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips, pp 73-74)


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