“Data Is” or “Data Are”?

Want to start a disagreement amongst data managers? Ask them if “data” is a singular or plural noun. Does one say “data are” or is it better to say “data is”? Data people often have opinions about which is correct (and will let you know about it).

Personally, I’ve been on the “data are” side of this war for some time. This is partly due to the fact that my PhD advisor drilled into my head that one must never say “spectrums”; it’s either one spectrum or many spectra. Likewise “data” is the plural form. However, I recently had an opportunity to re-evaluate my viewpoint and am starting to lean more toward “data is”.

Much of the reason for my change of opinion came from feedback on my writing. As much as “data are” seems like it should be correct, many people stumble over reading this in a sentence. The meaning of the sentence gets lost as the brain tries to process the grammar. As a writer, this is the last thing that I want. Therefore, I started considering using “data” as a singular noun.

The other thing that moved me toward “data is” was the essay sent to me by a fellow data manager, Amanda, called “Data is a singular noun”. The author makes a good case, based on history and grammar, that it should always be “data is” instead of “data are”.

Part of this author’s reasoning is due to the fact that a word’s usage and evolution in English are more important than how the word’s originating language says the word should be used. So even though Latin suggests “data” should be plural, what matters most is how people actually use the word “data” in English. A second reason for choosing the singular is that we really never use the word “datum” anymore. This presumes that “data” is de facto singular form for this word. Either way, there’s a lot of history behind using “data” as a singular noun.

I’m sure that we’ll eventually reach a point where there is a conclusive answer to this question. Until then, I’m going to try to be more conscious about using “data is”. At least in my writing.

So, “data is” or “data are”? What do you think?