Is data plural or singular?

Request of the day today is about the word “data”.

The companies I’ve worked for in the past ~8 years in the finance industry involve a lot of data, and we have to talk about it a lot, depending on your role in the corporate world.

Is data singular, or plural, or other?

In Australia, “data” is treated as a mass collective noun that you treat as singular, just like “information”.

e.g. The data was collected. There wasn’t much data available.

>>> In this sentence, we use the singular words “was” and “much” instead of the plurals “were” and “many”.

(This bit is in brackets because it’s not essential reading: I tried really hard to think of a way to explain what a mass collective noun is, but couldn’t think of anything clever. Basically, it is a noun for a group or a volume of things where you can’t count that noun. You can’t say one data, two datas.)

In addition to being a noun, you can also use “data” as an adjective.

e.g. ProgramX is a data system. (adjective + noun) This means it is a system that collects, stores, and uses data. (noun)

Why data changed from being plural to mass collective/singular over time

Historically, “data” was a Latin word that was the plural of “datum”. (A single point of data is a datum.)

For this reason, some traditionalists in the USA like to still use “data” in its Latin (plural) form.

e.g. The data were collected, but there was one point of datum that I want to talk about.

But we don’t do that here in Australia.

From about the 1900s, common usage has evolved, and even the Oxford English Dictionary accepts that we now use “data” as mass collective/singular.

Bonus word of the day:

There’s another Latin word that we have transformed from “plural >>> singular” over time: your “agenda” for a meeting.

In Latin, “agendum” is singular and “agenda” is plural, but in English, we don’t say “agendum”.

We say “agenda” and we treat it as “singular”.

e.g. The agenda (singular) for that meeting was long, and the items (plural) on the agenda were boring.

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(C) TJ Withers-Ryan, 2022. Please credit me when you share of repost. Thanks!

6 thoughts on “Is data plural or singular?

  1. Lol, this may seem trivial to some, but as writers, it really does interest me. I used to wonder what my accounting ex-colleagues used to enjoy in reading the latest taxation guidelines, but now I’m doing the same for writing—and this post. Thanks for this!

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  2. RE ‘But we don’t do that here in Australia’ – tell that to my thesis supervisor! Admittedly it’s a niche area but people working with data in maths & science still often insist on saying ‘The data show…’ At my workplace (school curriculum resources) a compromise was reached with the editors that they would allow either variant, depending on the context.
    Somewhat related is use of the term ‘a number of…’, e.g. ‘There is/are a number of ways to say this’. Common usage (e.g. ABC newsreaders) is ‘There are a number…’ but my mathematical colleagues insist that a single number is being referred to. It’s a clunky, meaningless term any so my solution is to avoid using it. Interested in your thoughts.

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    • So true! Good that they were willing to compromise to use either! Thesis, tell me more!!! So is your thesis about maths and science specifically? Every part of me recoils from “the data show…” 😂

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    • As for a number of these are valid — 100% plural. The plural noun is implied, e.g. A number of these ideas are valid. A number of people are going. You can’t say… A number of idea is valid. The singular makes no sense in my opinion!

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