[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
NOTE NEW ADDRESS (As of 01/01/2007 DO NOT USE OLD P.O. BOX ADDRESS):
Michael A. Ivie, Ph.D., F.R.E.S.
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