Dealing with data

data-startrek
Data is a character who appears in “Star Trek” TV series and movies. People differ on whether the noun “data” should take a singular or plural verb.

A colleague recently expressed surprise that the latest edition of the AP Stylebook recommends using a singular verb with the word “data” in most instances. He asked: Isn’t that word plural? Is AP wrong?

The short answers are yes and no. Let’s take a look at the data.

Merriam-Webster defines “data” as “factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation.” The dictionary’s entry for the word notes that it is technically a plural form for the word “datum” but singular or plural in construction. M-W says “data” may take a singular or plural verb.

Stylebooks help writers and editors decide what to choose when we have such options. That guidance builds consistency whether we are working on a book manuscript, a magazine or a company website. It would be distracting to see “data is” in one paragraph of a news story or press release and “data are” in the next.

Here’s what the entry in the 2019 AP Stylebook says about “data” and verbs:

The word typically takes singular verbs and pronouns when writing for general audiences and in data journalism contexts: The data is sound. In scientific and academic writing, plural verbs and pronouns are preferred.

Most, but not all, U.S. news organizations use AP style. Some have their own style.

Regarding “data,” The Washington Post uses the singular verb: “Their bipartisan bill would also require the companies to regularly disclose the ways consumers’ data is being used.” The New York Times does likewise: “The data shows how personal it is.”

Beyond journalism, the Chicago Manual of Style says either verb is fine with “data.” I asked my Twitter following, which consists mostly of editors and writers from an array of disciplines, what they recommended. Here are the results of that informal poll:

twitter-data

A few responded: “It depends.” That’s essentially what the AP entry says too.

If the use of singular verbs and pronouns with “data” bothers you because of the word’s plural heritage, consider other English words imported and modified from Latin. “Agenda” comes from the singular “agendum.” Today we apply a singular verb to it without a second thought.

In my editing classes, I share with my students a love of language and a recognition that words and meanings evolve. Sometimes, there is no right or wrong. As we write and edit, we should consider the context of the piece and use resources such as stylebooks and dictionaries to make smart choices.

So it is with “data” and other matters. That’s my agenda.