On the BBC 4 Radio programme More or Less on 17 March 2023, the presenter Tim Harford (an economist) said that the Financial Times style guide now tells the FT’s journalists to treat data as a singular noun. An executive editor from the FT explained that for the last 4 years the style guide had treated data as being optionally either singular or plural.
Tim Harford said he prefers to use data as a plural noun, though most of his colleagues on the More or Less team treat it as singular. He thinks of data as a near synonym for numbers and numbers is, of course, plural in English. He pointed to the history of data. In Latin, data is the plural of the nature noun datum. Indeed, datum itself exists as a singular noun in English.
Mass nouns and count nouns
Tim Harford was, in fact, not explaining accurately the distinction between the 2 forms of usage. It is not a question of singular or plural. The real distinction is between mass nouns and count nouns. One set of people treat this word as a count noun with a singular form datum and a plural form data. This is similar to how they treat grape: as a count noun with singular grape and plural grapes.
The other set of people treat data as a mass noun, which behaves in much the same way as wine. Mass nouns denote substances that can be subdivided and are not viewed as being made up of individual particles. They do not form plurals and cannot be modified by the indefinite article a / an.
Many nouns that are normally denote a mass are sometimes used instead to denote ‘a type’ of that mass. In that specialised meaning, those nouns are being used as count nouns. For example, a wine denotes ‘a type of wine’ and wines denotes ‘types of wine’. Although used as count nouns with that specialised meaning, those nouns are still mass nouns when they have any other meaning.
Mass v count in other languages
Different languages can draw the line between mass nouns and count nouns in different places. For example:
- English treats grape and pea as count nouns. But Russian typically uses mass nouns vinograd and gorokh in talking about ‘grapes’ and ‘peas’. Russian adds the derivational suffix –ina to denote an individual grape (vinogradina) or pea (gorošina).
- historically, the noun pease was a mass noun in Old English, but over time, the noun came to be perceived as the plural of a new count noun, with singular pea and plural peas.
- English information is a mass noun, but the French equivalents are count nouns with singular renseignement or information and plural renseignements or informations. Indeed, many French speakers carry that over into English, incorrectly creating the English non-word informations.
On this topic, I’m not with the dinosaurs. I think the FT’s decision is sensible.
Although some people (a declining proportion, I suspect) treat data as the plural of a count noun (eg ‘the data are’), I always treat it as a mass noun (eg ‘the data is’). Treating it as plural sounds quite unnatural to my ear. In other words, I see data as an undifferentiated mass of information, not as a collection of individual pieces of information. Also, I never use the form datum, which sounds quite un-English to me. To refer to an individual part of the mass of data, I use, for example piece of data or data point (or perhaps datapoint).
Although data originated in Latin as the plural form of the count noun datum, that historical explanation no longer matches the intuitions of most English speakers about how their language works today. The language has moved on and style guides need to move with it.