Sunday, November 18, 2007

Data: Singular or Plural?

My brother Sam was visiting recently and corrected me when I used the word "data" as a collective singular rather than the plural. He made some huffy comment about the difference being important to scientists. Back to that in a moment.

A few days ago I discovered that professional wrestling was older than I thought while watching a film from the 1940's. Well today I discovered that the use of data as a singular noun dates from at least that far back as well. This time my source is "The Philadelphia Story," also filmed in the 1940's. Jimmy Stewart, playing an author working as a journalist, says, "Our research department didn't give us much data."

I was about to send a snide note to Sam, when I started to wonder about the 'data' statement in Haskell, used to construct new types. There is also a 'type' statement and a 'newtype', both apparently singular, but then, each constructs exactly one type. So I have to wonder, is "data" in this context also singular?

If Haskell used "datum" instead, and there was more than one element in the type, it wouldn't make sense, I suppose. Of course, no sane language designer would force you to use 'datum Singular = One', but 'data Plural = One | Two', would he? Details like that are important in the semantics of Haskell, though perhaps not the syntax. Still, perhaps I should be more careful about my usage.


Anonymous said...

"Our research department didn't give us much data."

I don't think that's singular....

Owing to the use of "much", I would call it a mass noun.

Clifford.Beshers said...

I've always thought that as well, but my brother would insist on "many data".

Conal said...

"type" and "newtype" describe a single type but (usually) a multitude of values. so in that sense "type" and "data" are somewhat consistent. besides, i suspect "data" is an abbreviation for "data type" or ML's "datatype".

Clifford.Beshers said...

Thanks, Conal, I believe that's the best interpretation. And I guess I've reversed myself since last night. I think the use of "data" as a collective noun is fine. I think a lot of people ow use "data points" when they want to refer to specific values. Redundant or not, I think it's here to stay.

wildgoose said...

Your first commenter had it right - data is a "mass noun".

One chicken: singular.
Two chickens: plural
Some chicken: indeterminate amount rather than a number of whole chickens.

Datum: singular
Data: plural
Data: indeterminate amount without specifying an exact count.

KG2V said...

Wish you had brought it up at the party.

I was talking with a linguist one day, and he said one of his favorite questions is when someoneone makes up a word, and then asks him "Is there such a word?" he says he always replied "there is now"

No one defines English - English is defined by usage - you everyone start to use data instead of datum, or even the other way around, it BECOMES right.

For instance - is it Electronic Mail, E Mail, e-mail, or email? It's based on usage, unlike, say French, where you have a governing body to tell you

Oh BTW - as you can tell, we got home fine (no traffic at all)

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