Dealing with data

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:


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.

Student guest post: Three ways that studying Latin can make you a better journalist

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of these posts. MaryRachel Bulkeley is a senior double majoring in editing and graphic design and Latin with a minor in PPE. In addition to being involved with a variety of campus organizations, such as TEDxUNC and the North Carolina Study Center, she works as a freelance designer and photographer.

Editors are known for having dependable news judgment and the ability to write and edit well. They are critical thinkers who play close attention to detail. Journalism professors strive to equip their students with the skills to excel in a world now dominated by a 24/7 news cycle and audiences with short attention spans.

Majoring in Latin alongside journalism has enriched my college experience in many ways. I still get surprised sometimes, though, when people ask me and my fellow classicists questions like: “Latin, huh? What can you do with that these days?” The Society for Classical Studies offers a thorough response to this question, noting that students who study classics go on to be lawyers, doctors, CEOs and — wait for it —journalists.

That said, here are three ways that studying Latin — and any second language, really — can make you a better journalist.

1. Studying Latin teaches you to love grammar.

Latin is considered a “dead language,” but students who study it learn more than just how to decline nouns, conjugate verbs and translate ancient texts. They learn how to love grammar.

Knowing how and when to use active and passive voice, the indicative and the subjunctive, or an ablative absolute can make all the difference in your writing.

Some Latinists care so much about grammar that they post and comment regularly on Facebook pages such as the one titled “Dank Latin Memes.”

As is the case with learning any second language, starting with the basics affects the way we view our own language. It teaches us to think carefully about why we use the words or phrases we use as well as how to decipher problems in the writings of others.

2. Studying Latin makes you better at solving problems.

When you’re translating a Latin sentence, you have to approach it much in the same way that an expert editor might approach a news story. When translating, you have to identify the sentence’s main verb and determine its impact on the sentence as a whole.

When editing, you have to identify your writer’s main point in order to clarify how the rest of the story relates to it. Sometimes the various pieces of the puzzle are difficult to find, so you have to ask your Latin professor for guidance. Sometimes, as an editor, you have to ask your journalist if she really meant to write “affect” rather than “effect” or “lion hunting” rather than “lion-hunting.”

Peter Cole, a professor of journalism and former news editor of The Guardian, shared his tips for how to write better news stories. In his post, he reminds the journalist, and consequently the editor, that she is responsible for figuring out what is most important in a story. She is also responsible for deciding how to arrange that information appropriately and effectively. Cole’s tips are relevant today and apply to scholar and journalist alike.

3. Studying Latin deepens your appreciation for language, literature and learning.

The writers, historians and storytellers that came out of the Roman tradition have profoundly shaped the way that our society and government functions.

Learning their language and reading their literature can illustrate how core elements of a good news story – timeliness, proximity, significance, conflict, drama and human interest – are elements enable work to endure generations. The reality that people still read Livy’s histories, Cicero’s political speeches and Augustine of Hippo’s theological writings signal that well-written content about issues that matter make a lasting impact.

Q&A with Lisa McLendon, author ‘The Perfect English Grammar Workbook’


Lisa McLendon is the coordinator of the Bremner Editing Center at the University of Kansas. She is the author of “The Perfect English Grammar Workbook: Simple Rules and Quizzes to Master Today’s English.” In this interview, conducted by email, McLendon discusses the book and her views on “grammar police” and the singular they.

Q. What prompted you to write this workbook, and how did it come together?

A. This was a great example of the power of networking: Someone I’m connected with on Twitter and through the American Copy Editors Society is a freelance copy editor for publisher Callisto Media and edited Grant Barrett’s “Perfect English Grammar.” When Callisto decided to do a workbook, too, she couldn’t take it on so she recommended me.

The publisher uses data to figure out what audiences are looking for and what needs are unmet, so the turnaround was quick. I wrote the book in about six weeks. Then it went through two rounds of editing, design, marketing and then release.

Q. You’re an editor. As an author, how did it feel to be edited?

A. EVERYONE needs an editor, and that includes editors who are writing. It gave me a lot of confidence in the publisher that editing was still an important part of the process.

I was pleased to have a thorough content edit and then a thorough copy edit on top of that. Both editors were excellent, and the process was relatively painless. But still, there were a couple of places where I thought, “yikes, did I write that?” That’s why we all need editors!

Q. What are some areas of grammar that cause people headaches?

A. Agreement, both subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent. Subjunctives. Subject and object pronoun use. Punctuation, apostrophes in particular.

Q. In the book, you write that you prefer “grammar cheerleader” over “grammar cop.” What do you make of debates over grammar on social media and elsewhere?

I’m glad people are talking about language. Healthy debate is good, and anytime people (myself included) can learn more about language and how it works, it’s a good thing. Anytime people think about making writing more clear and accurate, it’s a good thing.

Because grammar rules (and “rules”) are often used by those “in the know” as a cudgel to shame people or shut out voices, a lot of people have a negative perception of grammar. That’s why it needs a cheerleader instead of a cop.

But like it or not, we DO get judged by our language, especially online, where the vast majority of communication is written, and often that judgment will override any information someone is trying to convey or point someone is trying to make. Understanding grammar can help someone gain credibility and write authoritatively.

Q. Let’s wrap up with two hot-button topics: How do you feel about the Oxford comma? The singular they?

A. Oxford comma: Honestly, I wish people would quit arguing about this. There are so many more important issues in language. Follow the designated style guide and be done with it. (Blog post:

Singular they: We have been using “they” for centuries to refer to unspecified or unknown people, and English has not crumbled into dust as a result. (In fact, this exact grammatical phenomenon has occurred before, when plural “you” expanded into the singular, displacing “thou” and “thee.”) It’s here to stay, and it’s rapidly gaining acceptance in mainstream publications. (Blog post:

Book review: ‘Founding Grammars’

In the summer of 2014, “Weird Al” Yankovic released “Word Crimes,” a sarcastic blast at what the song parodist saw as the decline of proper grammar, word choice and punctuation. Yankovic is a stickler on “whom” and “literally,” and he is an advocate of diagramming sentences. A link to the song’s video was widely shared on social media, and anyone who works as a writer or editor probably received an email from a friend or relative about it.

Not everyone enjoyed the song’s mocking humor, however. On the Language Log blog, linguist Ben Zimmer called it the “ultimate peever’s anthem.” Mignon Fogarty of the University of Nevada-Reno, perhaps better known as Grammar Girl, wrote on her website: “I don’t believe in word crimes, and I don’t believe in encouraging people to think about language that way.”

Such a battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists of language feels like a contemporary phenomenon. Certainly, the Internet has led to plenty of chatter about “they” as a singular pronoun as well as debates about serial commas, split infinitives and prepositions at the end of sentences.

foundgrammarsBut in “Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language,” author Rosemarie Ostler shows that this conversation about language has been taking place since the founding of the United States. It is not new, but it is fascinating.

In eight chapters, Ostler takes the reader through grammar’s evolution in the United States. She does so in a roughly chronological way, from Noah Webster through Geoffrey Pullum. In between, Ostler covers the inside stories on “The Elements of Style” and the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as well as lesser-known works such as “The Institutes of English Grammar” by Goold Brown and “Every-Day English” by Richard Grant White.

“Founding Grammars” begins with an origin story. Shortly after the American Revolution, Webster sought to further declare the new nation’s independence via a distinctly American way of speaking and writing. He and others saw grammar knowledge as essential to the country’s success.

Grammar books and dictionaries were, as Ostler describes them, “the self-help manuals of their time.” These grammarians, however, did not always agree on the details, leading to the type of debates over language that we still see today.

Elsewhere, Ostler weaves issues of politics, ethnicity and class into grammar’s history. In the presidential election of 1828, Andrew Jackson was criticized for his “shaky spelling skills” among other language-based shortcomings. Abraham Lincoln faced similar attacks when he ran for the White House in 1860. Ostler explains the motive for such criticism: “Saying that Lincoln didn’t know how to use the language correctly was an indirect way of saying that he was from the lower classes and therefore unworthy to be president.” Yet both men were popular with the American public because of their plain-spoken manner, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address used what was considered the proper grammar of the era.

After the Civil War, the “verbal critics” emerged, dispensing advice on English as a way to raise and maintain a person’s social status. Some of these grammarians had a streak of bias in their guidance, disapproving of words such as “smithereens” and “hooligan” brought to America by immigrants from Ireland.

At the same time, the study of language took hold at U.S. universities. Academics such as Thomas Lounsbury of Yale University argued that English was constantly changing and that the elitist directives of the verbal critics were based on whim rather than science.

“Founding Grammars” includes debates about changes in spelling and word choice as well as grammar itself. A linguist and former librarian, Ostler leans toward the descriptivist camp. Maintaining a neutral tone, she tips her hand on occasion, describing “The Elements of Style” as “relentlessly conservative.”

But this is a history book, not a writing guide, and it’s a successful and entertaining one. Ostler’s level of detail is impressive throughout “Founding Grammars.” The reader learns, among other things, that Webster worked on his famous dictionary using a standing desk and that Davy Crockett inspired the phrases “kick the bucket” and “bark up the wrong tree.”

Ostler provides the background on not only how different grammar texts and dictionaries came about, but also how popular media reacted to them at the time. For example, The New York Times, Toronto Globe & Mail and The New Yorker were apoplectic in 1961 when Webster’s Third International Dictionary took what they saw as a permissive view on “ain’t.”

Throughout the book, Ostler’s writing is clear, concise and engaging. She connects the threads of the story of America’s English with grace and authority. Even Strunk and White would approve of the way “Founding Grammars” unfolds.

This review also appears in the Winter 2015 edition of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

Who’s that? That’s who

Earlier this week, this tweet from The New York Times generated a discussion about style and grammar:

Here is the question from Kelly Flincham, who teaches journalism at Hofstra University: Shouldn’t it be “a teen who vapes”? Isn’t there a rule that says use “who” for people and “that” for objects?

Patrick LaForge, an editor at the Times, responded with this link from Grammar Girl’s website, suggesting that the two words are interchangeable, at least grammatically. LaForge said later that the NYT stylebook prefers “who” in those situations, although such guidelines are more loose on Twitter.

As the Grammar Girl post discusses, stylebooks differ on “who” vs. “that.” Several recommend “who” when talking about people and, on occasion, animals.

I’ve had my own experience with this question. When I was wire editor at The News & Observer in the early 2000s, I met with a group of readers concerned about coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In their view, the Raleigh newspaper’s news judgment, story placement, headlines and word choice were biased against the Palestinians and in favor of the Israeli government.

One of the readers said that we had published “Palestinians that …” constructions on occasion. She said that using “that” instead of “who” was a way to indicate that Palestinians are not people. I did my best to assure the reader that there was no such intention and that I believed that Palestinians and Israelis are humans who deserve fair treatment in the news media.

Since that conversation in the N&O newsroom years ago, I have held on to this distinction between “who” and “that” on stylistic grounds. So if you say you want to talk to a teen that vapes, I won’t question your grammar. It’s correct. But to be on the safe side, I’d make it “who.”

Edit like a pirate

College football is in full swing, and with it, so are the rivalries and trash talk.

Here in North Carolina, East Carolina is emerging as the best team in the state. ECU smashed rival North Carolina 70-41 last weekend. It was the second consecutive win for the Pirates over the Tar Heels.

That resounding victory has apparently inspired this billboard, which is making the rounds on Twitter:


The sign includes the score of that game as well as a mocking reference to N.C. State University’s retired “Our State” slogan. ECU and NCSU are also rivals.

Some UNC fans have responded by questioning the billboard’s grammar. Shouldn’t the hashtag be “#beneathwhom” rather than “#beneathwho”? Technically, yes. But I reserve my who/whom distinctions for formal writing like cover letters and academic journals. I’ll give this casual usage a pass, though the hashtag’s meaning is a mystery to me.

My problem with the billboard is a different one. Happy pirates say “arrrr!” not “aargh!” And ECU fans are certainly pleased, not dismayed, with how their team is playing this season. (You can read more about pirate vocabulary at the Talk Like A Pirate Day site.)

Finally, we come to the question of whether ECU fans are trolling their rivals, as some on Twitter are suggesting. That depends on the billboard’s location. If it’s west of I-95, it is. If it’s east of I-95, it isn’t. Proximity to campuses and their fan bases is our guide.

The sign is apparently in Winterville, a town that’s east of I-95 and less than 10 miles from the ECU campus in Greenville. So this is an example of fans celebrating, not trolling.

I wish ECU fans well on the rest of the season. May you say “arrrr!” throughout the fall. But like Jerry Seinfeld, I don’t want to be a pirate.

But it’s OK to start a sentence with a conjunction

A link to this article by Steven Pinker landed in my email inbox last week. The sender of the email bemoaned Pinker’s view that some grammar rules can be bent or even broken. Where are the guardians of the language?

Skimming through Pinker’s list, I saw the usual grammar flashpoints: split infinitives, that/which, who/whom and prepositions at the end of sentences. But another caught my eye: starting a sentence with a conjunction.

That topic had come up recently at an editing bootcamp in Montreal sponsored by the American Copy Editors Society. A participant at the workshop asked whether it is acceptable to start a sentence with “and” or “but.”

One of my co-presenters, Fred Vultee of Wayne State University, said yes, it is. He cited one of the most-read pieces of writing in world history: the Book of Genesis.

Indeed, the second sentence of the Bible has a sentence that starts with a conjunction: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

And no one seems to have a problem with that.