Today was a day of meetings. Fortunately, the first was at a delightful restaurant; the Thai Thani on International Drive in Orlando. Being an Indian curry lover, I opted for the Curry Fried Rice with chicken, and wasn’t disappointed. One of the house specialities is a pineapple yellow fried rice curry with a choice of beef, chicken or pork, stir fried with raisins, cashews, and onions but I wanted something less fruity so I’ll save this special for another visit.
Following two more meetings, I did the first of my two joint-presentations. I usually fly solo – then there’s only me to blame of things go wrong – but this year I tried sharing. And this one was on one of my favorite topics: automated data collection and analysis with AAC devices. The content was similar to the presentation I gave at ASHA 2012 and which has already been documented in The Dudes Do ASHA 2012: Day 4, so feel free to click and read that.
What wasn’t discussed in that older post was the way on which the word data itself can tell us something about language change over time. So try this quick test – and don’t spend too long thinking about the answer:
Which is these statements is correct:
(a) The data is good.
(b) The data are good.
If you answered (b), then you are in the company of the good people at the Oxford English Dictionary (and that’s not bad company to be in) and the hearts of die-hard grammatical prescriptivists .
But if you answered (a), then you are not that different from the population of the English-speaking world as a whole because the is and the are seem to be in free variation! If you take a look at the Corpus of Historical American English, you’ll see that in terms of frequency of use, they don’t seem to differ that much since the 1930’s, and you can make a case, I suppose, for arguing that the is-form has edged ahead of the are-form.
Take a look at these charts that track use since 1830.
Notice that “data is…” was being used at the turn of the century and peaked in the 1990’s. Compare that with the “data are…” instances:
There are hardly any examples prior to the 1930’s and from the 1960’s onward, both is and are appear to be neck and neck in terms of usage.
So why does this happen? What is it that makes data such a tough word for folks to decide whether it should be used with is or are? The answer – or a t least part of it – is related to our understanding of whether a noun is a count noun or a mass noun.
For those saner readers who are less obsessed with language than this Dude, count nouns are – unsurprisingly! – those that can be counted. So dog, cat, shoe, table, boat, and cup, are all count nouns because we can talk about “three cups” or “five shoes” or “a room full of dogs.” With a count noun, you’re usually able to turn it into its plural form by adding an “s.”
On the other hand, a mass noun cannot be counted. Pork, education, furniture, and weather, cannot be used with a number or pluralized by adding an “s.” You don’t have “*three weathers” or “*a room full of furnitures.”
Data is one of those words that has become a mass noun, even though it was originally a count noun. And by “originally,” I mean going back to Latin, where the singular was datum and the plural was data. What often happens with foreign words that are imported into English is that we apply regular English rules to them. On that basis, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see datums – but it didn’t happen 😉
What appears to have happened is that the word data has become a synonym for information, and folks feel that if “the information is good” sounds OK, then so does “the data is good.”
Incidentally, there is a way to turn a countable noun into a mass noun by using a rather gruesome linguistic device called a “universal grinder .” Suppose that in a frantic effort to catch a bird that has found its way into your house, you cat leaps up into the air and accidentally hits a rapidly rotating heavy fan. Saddened by its untimely demise, you might, through your tragic sobs, explain to someone over the phone that, “There is cat all over the room.” In this situation, a regular count noun has suddenly transformed into a mass noun.
Equally, in certain circumstances, some mass nouns can take on the appearance of a count noun. Although water is typically a mass noun, you might be in a restaurant and remark that, “there are four or five waters already on the table.” Needless to say, folks learning English have a bit of a struggle trying to learn the difference between them as the only rule seems to be that liquids and powders (amorphous items) tend to be mass nouns, and the rest are count.
The learning point from all this – and we’re trying to be recognized as an educational blog as well as providing entertainment – is that when we are evaluating someone’s ability to use language, it’s critical to be aware of the fact that sometimes the prescribed way of speaking may actually be in free variation with the popular way, and this is actually one of the ways in which language changes over time .
For the sake of completeness, the day ended with wine, pizza, beer (mass noun), and a cocktail before bed. Needless to say I fell asleep quickly.
 In the world of language mavens, there are constant arguments between prescriptivists, who take the line that there are “correct” ways to say things, and descriptivists, who say that so long as you can be understood, there ain’t no right and wrong. Although I’m more often the prescriptivist boat, I’m happy to jump ship depending on my mood – and whether I want to just get into a bit of a row with someone just for the hell of it.
 The Universal Grinder is a linguistic thought experiment first written about by Francis Pelletier, who used it in a paper talking about the nature of count versus mass nouns. Pelletier didn’t use household pets and rotating blades as his examples but the Dudes feel more at home with Edgar Allan Poe as a role model than, say, Noam Chomksy or Stephen Pinker.
Pelletier, F. J. 1975. Non-Singular Reference: Some Preliminaries. Philosophia 5.
 A pretty comprehensive coverage of how and why languages change over time can be found in Larry Trask’s 2010 book Why Do Languages Change? For those who want the Dude notes, you can click on the following Dude Link to get the 38-page summary.