[Taxacom] Family names, usage.

Michael A. Ivie mivie at montana.edu
Wed Feb 20 14:52:07 CST 2008

 From Bill Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words:

*data*.  Perhaps no other word better illustrates the extent to which 
questions of usage are often largely a matter of fashion.  In Latin, 
data is of course a plural, and until fairly recent times virtually all 
authorities insisted, often quite strenuously, that it be treated as 
such in English.  Thus "The data was fed into a computer program shown 
as SLOSH"  /(New Yorker) /should be "The data were fed .. ."

            The problem is that etymology doesn't always count for much 
in English. If it did, we would have to write, "My stamina aren't what 
they used to be" or ''I've just paid two insurance premia." For 
centuries we have been adapting Latin words to fit the needs and 
patterns of English. /Museums, agendas,/ /stadiums, premiums, /and many 
others are freely, and usually unexceptionably, inflected on the English 
model, not the Latin one.

            Indeed, many users of English show an increasing tendency to 
treat all Latin plurals as singulars, even those that have traditionally 
been treated as plural, most notably /criteria,/ /media, phenomena, 
strata, /and /data. /With the first four of these the impulse is 
probably better resisted, partly as a concession to convention, but also 
because a clear and useful distinction can be made between the singular 
and plural forms. In stratified rock, for instance, each stratum is 
clearly delineated. In any list of criteria, each criterion is 
distinguishable from every other. /Media /suggests-or ought to 
suggest-one medium and another medium and another. In each case the 
elements that make up the whole are invariably distinct and separable.

            But with /data /such distinctions are much less evident. 
This may be because, as Professor Randolph Quirk has suggested, we have 
a natural inclination to regard /data /as an aggregate-that is, as a 
word in which we perceive the whole more immediately than the parts. 
Just as we see a bowlful of sugar as a distinct entity rather than as a 
collection of granules (which is why we don't say, "Sugar are sweet"), 
we tend to see /data /as a complete whole rather than one datum and 
another datum and another. In this regard it is similar to /news /(which 
some nineteenth-century users actually treated as a plural) and 

            The shift /is /clearly in the direction of treating /data 
/as a singular, as /The New Yorker /and several other publications have 
decided to do. Personally, and no doubt perversely, I find that I have 
grown more attached to /data /as a plural with the passage of time. I 
think there is a certain elegance and precision in "More data are needed 
to provide a fuller picture of the DNA markers" /(Nature) /than "The 
data by itself is vacuous" /(New York Times). /But that /is /no more 
than my opinion.

            Whichever side you come down on, it is worth observing that 
the sense of /data /is generally best confined to the idea of raw, 
uncollated bits of information, the sort of stuff churned out by 
computers, and not extended to provide a simple synonym for /facts /or 
/reports /or /information, /as it was in this /New/ /York Times 
/headline: ''Austria magazine reports new data on Waldheim and Nazis." 
The "data" on inspection proved to be evidence and allegations-words 
that would have more comfortably fit the context, /if /not the


Michael A. Ivie, Ph.D., F.R.E.S.

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