Hey copy editors! Let's loosen the cardigan on 'data' and 'media'

In my experience, you can use "data" as a collective noun without incurring the wrath of people who comb the Internet for heterodoxy. That usage is enshrined in the AP Stylebook, even though you've got to jump through a few hoops: "The data is sound" passes muster, says The Book, because you're referring to said data as a unit. But: "The data have been carefully collected."

This distinction is bad for business! In the time it takes you to figure out whether a collective noun is appropriate, you could be firing up a blog post, fact-checking a politician's statement, selling your building, or otherwise figuring out how to save your place of employment. (Another, sneakier benefit: If enough people get cheesed off by your grammatical daring, page views could skyrocket.)

"The 'data' thing is almost completely gone," says The Baltimore Sun's John McIntyre, who is something of an icon to copy editors. (That enigmatic smile! And...is that a bow tie?) "You only see 'datum' in purely scientific journalism articles." Scientists, he notes, don't even really bother with this one anymore.

Pam Nelson, a copy editor who blogs about the craft for the American Copy Editors Society, says "because readers who know the difference will notice in print, I generally do use the plural verb when it is called for."

I also think it's time for copy editors to loosen the cardigan when it comes to "media." And yes, I agree that there are excellent arguments for not doing so. "I’m not as happy with media as a singular," says McIntyre, "simply because the people who use media as a singular are also the people who say the news media are some unified thing." And yes, unlike "datum," "medium" is still in common use. And sure, while even my 1967 edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language says "data" is "usually construed" as singular, "media" is listed only as a plural of "medium."

The singular treatment of "media" gets a long note in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (I have the 10th edition, published in 1996); it's "apparently still so used without stigma" in the "field of advertising," the dictionary sniffs, but "this use is not as well established as the mass-noun use of data and is likely to incur criticism esp. in writing." Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, is a little less stiff: singular verbs with "the media," it says, mean "all the means of communication, as newspapers, radio, and TV, that provide the public with news, entertainment, etc., usually along with advertising." AP doesn't even dither on this one: "The word is plural," it says.

This would normally be a slam-dunk case for copy-editor caution. But I have a problem with it, one that does not stand up well to reason: I feel like a tool writing "The media are."

"The other thing to keep in mind," McIntyre says, not exactly warming to my point but being very polite nonetheless, "is that English has never considered itself bound by the grammatical conventions of the languages from which it borrows." || Related: University of North Carolina's J-school drops spelling from its famous spelling and grammar test (The Editor's Desk) | Earlier: NPR listener complains about use of the word ‘data’ (Poynter)

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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