NPR listener complains about use of the word ‘data’

NPR | Grammar Girl
Spurred by a biology professor’s request that NPR use the word “data” as a plural noun — “datum” being the singular — NPR’s Lori Grisham researched how the word has been used on the air:

The good news for [professor Robin] Taylor and other language traditionalists: the plural use is not completely extinct. The phrase “data are” appeared in 17 stories. The bad news: “data is” appeared in 39.

As Taylor himself said, languages are alive and change over time. It appears to our office, however sadly, that this is one of those times.

Grisham notes the AP Stylebook’s guidance: Data usually is used as a plural noun, but it can be singular, too — depending on whether the writer is referring to an individual data point or the collection of data. But, as ProPublica’s Scott Klein asked last week on Twitter, “When are you ever not referring to it as a unit?”

Grammar Girl provides a guide:

If you wish to use data as a singular mass noun, you should be able to replace it in the sentence with the word information, which is also a mass noun. For example,

Much of this information is useless because of its lack of specifics.

If, however, you want to or need to use data as a plural count noun, you should be able to replace it with the word facts, which is also a plural count noun. For example,

Many of these facts are useless because of their lack of specifics.

Klein’s reaction to the NPR post: “Gotta go with Grammar Girl on this one. You wouldn’t say ‘these bacon are delicious.’ ”

Let the debate continue. || Related: Misspellings show language’s evolution, but does that mean they’re OK for journalists to use? (Poynter)

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  • Brent Longstaff

    I’ll play pedant’s advocate here: data is Latin, which is not a living, changing language. In Latin, data means “givens” and is as singular as the word “ducks”. Using it as a singular noun is as bad as saying “please RSVP” (or “he is naïve”, which ought to be wrong but isn’t).

    That said, I agree with Grammar Girl on how to use it in practice.

  • Paula Lavigne

    So happy this was addressed! This is one of my biggest grammar irritants! Why is this so hard to remember?

  • David Ollier Weber

    In the term “data points,” data is not a singular, any more than media is singular in “media outlets.” Would you be comfortable saying, “Radio is a media?” If so (though one hears that), you’re no friend of the Anguish Languish.

    Moving right along, how about “criteria” abuse? No, it is not the singular form.

  • Anonymous

    Datum/data, information and fact/facts are all different words and not necessarily synonymous. The Grammar Girl’s guidance is not quite parallel to this conversation. She’s using the words in prepositional phrases, so the subjects are “Much” and “Many” — not “information” and “facts.” When would you say “Much are” or “Many is”?

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I realize that in Latin terms data is plural, but the very fact you refer to “data points” shows why data can be used as a singular. How often do we hear about a datum? I don’t think of a bunch of “datums” but as a collection of information. If you want to speak about individual bits, refer to data points (as NPR did just the other day). To hold to plural-only when the singular form has largely vanished is simply fussy. And why doesn’t data point make sense? If media is a plural, are there not media outlets?  

  • Barry Hollander

    There was only one android on Star Trek Next Generation, and his name wasn’t Datum.  Okay, he had a brother.  And kinda a daughter.  But … oh heck, never mind.  Use datum because it’s right, not because you underestimate the wisdom of your audience.

  • Joshua Johnson

    I think we have to remember: the key is to make sure ALL our listeners understand what we’re saying, when we say it. I’m a newscaster, so my work goes out live, very quickly and only once — no rebroadcast two hours later like the newsmagazines. “Datum” might be grammatically correct for a singular pronoun, but… it’s snooty! Who says “datum” in casual conversation?

    My job is to be a journalist for not just the CECNPRLs (College Educated Core NPR Listeners, of course), but also for the new listener, the casual listener, or the poorly educated listener who’s just starting to be worldly-wise. Back in Miami (my previous job) we had a number of listeners who gravitated to public radio because we spoke clear, conversational, standard American English. Don’t they also deserve to understand without needing a dictionary?

    Bottom line: I suggest avoiding non-conversational word usage wherever possible. Brevity, simplicity and clarity trump everything else, in my book – not at the expense of meaning, but to ensure that the meaning doesn’t get lost under layers of our own intelligence.

    Just keep it simple.

    –Joshua Johnson
    Morning Newscaster, KQED News

  • David Bowman

    “Data” is always plural. If we use “data” as a singular, we inhibit our ability to discuss individual data points. We decrease clarity.

    Not completely extinct? I hear and read “data” as a plural far more often than as a singular. However, I have noticed one pattern in use. Research scientists, particularly in the hard sciences, typically use “data” as a plural. (They are very interested in language clarity because it contributes to the validity of their findings.) People in education tend to use “data” as a singular.

    The number of NPR stories in which reporters use “data” as a singular or plural is not a valid measure of how the word is used more generally. That follows a qualitative methodology, and the results cannot, therefore, be generalized to the population at large.

    If “data” is a singular, “data point,” “piece of data,” and similar expressions simply don’t make sense.

    Finally, “data” and “information” are not synonymous. The analysis of data leads to information. However, “facts” is a good replacement for “data.”

  • Anonymous

    Reminds me of Catch-22