I make my living writing dialogue — which, like real speech, is largely ungrammatical. Characters say “gimme” and “gotta” and “woulda.” They speak in fragments. Like this.
So I tend to be forgiving when a writer bends the rules, or uses words differently than I would prefer. Split infinitives? Fine by me. Dangling participles? No objection here. In fact, the only choice that drives me insane is when writers cling to false rules. To me, the shibboleth is the word “data.” This, from the Los Angeles Times:
Another 32 million have some information on file, but the data are too sketchy to create a traditional credit score, he said.
Most reasonable people would say “data is” rather than “data are.” Not only does it sound better, but it makes more sense. In this case, “data” refers to “some information” — it’s not clear what the individual bits of information would even be.
In fact, another article in the Times does treat data as singular:
Information security deals with issues such as who should access the data and how the data is stored, controlled, marked, disseminated and disposed of.
My suspicion is that the official style guide for the LA Times instructs writers to use data as a plural; the second writer broke the rule. “Data is plural” seems to be a common mandate. From The Economist’s style guide:
Propaganda looks plural but is not. Billiards, bowls, darts and fives are also singular. Data and media are plural. So are whereabouts. Teams that take the name of a town, country or university are plural, even when they look singular: England were bowled out for 56.
Why would publications insist on such arbitrary and wrong-sounding usages? Blame Latin. “Data” was originally the plural form of “datum,” which means “something given.” English speakers who use data as a plural noun, in constructions such as “these data” or “data are,” do so with conviction: they know intellectually that data is supposed to be plural, so they use it that way.
Unfortunately, many dictionaries disagree with them. From the American Heritage Dictionary:
[M]ore often scientists and researchers think of data as a singular mass entity like information, and most people now follow this in general usage.
Oxford Dictionary says the singular form is fine for us Yanks, and will probably become the rule in the Old World as well:
[T]here has been a growing tendency to use it as an equivalent to the uncountable noun information, followed by a singular verb. This is now regarded as generally acceptable in American use, and in the context of information technology. The traditional usage is still preferable, at least in Britain, but it may soon become a lost cause. Compare with agenda.
Yes, let’s. Following this logic, which I’ll call the Plurican Mandate –
If the word is plural in its source language, then it must be plural in English.
– the following sentences are correct:
* Let’s move on to the next agendum.
* The meeting’s agenda are long.
* The boy was apprehended while spray-painting a graffito on the wall.
* Bathroom graffiti are particularly vulgar.
* This is the appropriate forum for this discussion.
* Due to a server problem, the fora are temporarily closed.
Obviously, I feel pretty strongly that blindly following the rules of the source language is ridiculous, or else I wouldn’t have written this interminable essay. But I’m not going to chastise individual writers for choosing the opposite tack. Different things sound right to different people. As long as no one is an asshole about it, Pluricans and Singlecrats can still get along.
All I would ask of the Pluricans is to get off their high horse. Saying “data are” is like an American putting a “u” in “color,” “honor,” or “valor.” No, it’s not technically wrong, but it’s showy, deliberate and vain.
It’s like over-pronouncing Italian at the Olive Garden. No one is impressed, and frankly, we’re just a little embarrassed for you.