[Taxacom] Family names, usage.

Arthur Chapman taxacom3 at achapman.org
Wed Feb 20 15:01:16 CST 2008

I don't want to prolong a discussion, but some time back I did a little 
research into the use of data versus datum with the following results 
(NB: this was ddone some time ago, so I am not sure all the links will 
still work). It may be of interest

There has been much discussion on this in the literature and it again 
boils down to some extent on what continent you are from. The British 
still prefer the traditional usage, but elsewhere (America, Australia) 
the singular use is becoming acceptable (reference the Oxford 
Dictionary) and according to the Oxford Dictionary - "the plural use may 
soon become lost and singular will be accepted as the standard". For 
example, compare with "agenda" above, in which the singular usage is now 
English is an evolving language (and thus leaves not leafs and wharfs vs 
wharves where the usage has moved from one to the other and back again 
over the past 50-60 years). Strictly, if one follows the origin from the 
latin root of datum being singular and data being plural, then it is 
obvious that data should be plural. But English usage does not always 
follow such strict rules as it evolves and how often do we see the term 
datum refering to the singular in English?

A recent study of usage of data in the singular vs plural in some 
scientific and other publications concluded that in more Scientific 
literature (e.g. Nature) useage tended toward the plural use (93.6%), 
but as one moves towards more popular end of publishing it moves (thus 
New Scientist was around 70% plural to 30% singular) and then to popular 
press ( e.g. The Guardian) The singular dominated with around 40% using 
the plural and 60% the singular). (ref. Tim Johns, Kibbitzer 6 
http://web.bham.ac.uk/johnstf/revis006.htm ). As an example of the 
evolving nature of the language. A more recent study by the Michigan 
Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE 
http://www.hti.umich.edu/micase ) showed recent usage in Nature had 
dropped to 80% plural and 20% singular. (J.Swales 
http://www.lsa.umich.edu/eli/micase/Kibbitzer/Kibbitzer_criteria.htm )
Traditionalists will continue to use the term in the plural, but the 
evolving usage will soon dictate that it should be in the singular. 
Another word moving in the same direction incidentally is 
criteria/criterion where another recent study showed that now only 
around 1% of usage (in the Times and the Guardian ) now used the plural 
form. Other words that come into the same are are "media" and "phenomena"

To quote Websters Dictionary on-line " noun plural but singular or 
plural in construction" ... " Data leads a life of its own quite 
independent of datum, of which it was originally the plural. It occurs 
in two constructions: as a plural noun (like earnings ), taking a plural 
verb and plural modifiers (as these, many, a few ) but not cardinal 
numbers, and serving as a referent for plural pronouns (as they, them ); 
and as an abstract mass noun (like information ), taking a singular verb 
and singular modifiers (as this, much, little ), and being referred to 
by a singular pronoun ( it ). Both constructions are standard. The 
plural construction is more common in print, evidently because the house 
style of several publishers mandates it. " 

The American Heritage Dictionary states:
Usage Note: The word data is the plural of Latin datum, "something 
given," but it is not always treated as a plural noun in English. The 
plural usage is still common, as this headline from the New York Times 
attests: "Data Are Elusive on the Homeless." Sometimes scientists think 
of data as plural, as in These data do not support the conclusions. But 
more often scientists and researchers think of data as a singular mass 
entity like information, and most people now follow this in general 
usage. Sixty percent of the Usage Panel accepts the use of data with a 
singular verb and pronoun in the sentence Once the data is in, we can 
begin to analyze it. A still larger number, 77 percent, accepts the 
sentence We have very little data on the efficacy of such programs, 
where the quantifier very little, which is not used with similar plural 
nouns such as facts and results, implies that data here is indeed 
singular. http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=

The Macquarie Dictionary followed by the Australian Government Style 
Guide recommends the plural (however the Editor in Chief of the 
Dictionary in his history of the Dictionary uses data in the singular in 
every case! http://www.sun.ac.za/wat/translex/MACQUA3.html ), the 
Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary accepts either usage.
So - it is an evolving story and there is no true answer as far as 
English is concerned!

Arthur Chapman
Australian Biodiversity Information Services
Towooomba, Australia

Richard Zander wrote:
> Shall we go round with Data? Datum is singular, yeah, but one might
> sometimes mean "The data [set] is . . . " where understood is "set." I
> wonder how often one can defend one's inadvertently emitted "data is" in
> this way, though?
> *****************************
> Richard H. Zander 
> Voice: 314-577-0276
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> -----Original Message-----
> From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
> [mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Michael A. Ivie
> Sent: Wednesday, February 20, 2008 1:36 PM
> To: Spies, Martin; taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
> Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Family names, usage.
> I really do have important things to do, as no doubt does Martin, but 
> this is such a good way to avoid them....
> Spies, Martin wrote:
>> Michael A. Ivie wrote:
>>> I would like to point out that I myself am guilty of being "wrong" in 
>>> this usage of family-group names as plural.  I have actually caught 
>>> myself publishing this form, and in speech, which is sloppy in 
>>> America, I do it all the time.  This is not my point, I am simply 
>>> arguing what is grammatically correct is very clear
>> OK, but then what was yesterday's bit about, that this ">dumbing down< 
>> ... should be fought at every level in the sciences"?
> Incorrect usage is not something to be simply accepted because people do
> it.  I am very serious that just because I do it, does not make it 
> correct.  Like adultery, knowing something is wrong when you do it is an
> important part of understanding what you are doing.  I am not going to 
> put someone in jail for it, but I insist that it be understood that it 
> is not a good example.  I now hear full professors use data as a 
> singular in seminars.  Using data as singular allows students to 
> misunderstand just what data are. Once they think it is a thing, not a 
> collection of things, it becomes a very different concept.   The same 
> with family-group names.  Usage as a singular allows people to get it in
> their head that a family is a single thing, not an assemblage of 
> things.  Even if (as is unusual in current classificatons) the family is
> totally monophyletic in every sense, it is still an assemblage of 
> things, not a "thing."  Words are powerful in how we take them into our 
> subconcious assumptions about what they represent.   If we are going to 
> violate the rules, we should both know and admit that what we are doing 
> is incorrect.  Like adultery, we may do it anyway because we prefer to, 
> but deep down it is important to know its implications.  Most 
> importantly to the dumbing down argument, we should never defend 
> ourselves by claiming it is correct, and instead be clear that we just 
> like it, and that idiomatically, it is understood, even though
> incorrect. 
> This is what distinguishes us from George Bush, because he does not know
> it is incorrect.
>> .....
>>> When an editor or reviewer points out an error of any sort, they are 
>>> doing us a favor, not oppressing us, and should be thanked for their 
>>> efforts, even if we do not follow their advice.
>> Unfortunately, that's not true in all cases. Experience (in my case as 
>> an author, reviewer and editor of mostly English-language scientific
> and 
>> technical publications) shows that not all of what's being done works
> to 
>> any favor of the respective recipient, and some of it is needlessly 
>> restrictive. 
> But, they cared enough to respond, and in the specific case of 
> correcting something that is even technically wrong, it is done in good 
> faith (I am not refering to the reviewer comments that are vindictive, 
> erroneous or otherwise not fitting the above situation).  As such, if 
> you choose not to follow them, and successfully argue to the editor to 
> use technically incorrect usage, you are still in their debt because 
> they took the time to do their best to actually improve the paper.    It
> is up to the editor to decide the validity of the argument, the reviewer
> who raises a valid point is to be thanked either way.
> Mike

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