November 22, 2019

Data or Datum?


Unit 1 p10 states in a sidebar:

"The word 'data' is a plural Latin word but it is generally used as a singular word in English."

Here are some definitions:

"data n, pl. 1 Facts on which a decision is to be based. 2 Facts to be processed by computer.
datum n. (pl. data) item of data"

Oxford Quick Reference Dictionary and Thesaurus - Oxford University Press


noun 1 facts and statistics used for reference or analysis. 2 the quantities, characters, or symbols on which operations are performed by a computer.

USAGE Traditionally and in technical use data is treated as a plural, as in Latin it is the plural of datum. In modern non-scientific use, however, it is often treated as a singular, and sentences such as data was collected over a number of years are now acceptable.

ORIGIN Latin, plural of DATUM.


noun (pl. data) 1 a piece of information. 2 an assumption or premise from which inferences may be drawn. 3 a fixed starting point of a scale or operation.

ORIGIN Latin, 'something given'."


Inevitably some will disagree with the singular/plural usage and with the precise meaning of data. For example, you might think that most would agree with a measurement being a form of data.

To initiate an online bunfight (sometimes referred to as an "academic discussion"), follow these instructions:

  1. Choose a FirstClass conference (your regional M150 conference will probably suffice).
  2. Pick an example from a course unit (try sticking a pin in any page) e.g. Unit 1 p5, 1.1 "data (such as a person's name, or the number of a bus route)".
  3. Copy it into your message.
  4. Write, "The use of data in this example as opposed to datum is incorrect and betrays a total disregard for the English language. It should read datum. Data is plural, not singular!"
  5. Dig a large hole in the ground.
  6. Climb in and wait for the response.

Here is a part of an online discussion taken from a FirstClass conference. Please note that all correspondents follow good Netiquette. If you are unfamiliar with this term, read this article - "Netiquette, or the social conventions of computer conferencing".

Correspondent 1 writes:

"I (and many other people I know) use datum and data correctly as the one word that they are (is?) in singular and plural form. All my documentation is written with expressions like 'the data are stored as . . .', and so on.

It is pleasing to see that many authors (including some from the USA) correctly identify data as a plural."

Correspondent 2 replies to Correspondent 1:

"... I have no problem with the use of data as you refer to it but, in engineering, datum is the reference point or line with which all measurements are compared. It is also used on maps e.g. the datum against which heights are measured is sea level. The source of the two words is common but the meanings are different."

Correspondent 1 replies to Correspondent 2:

"Sorry if I misunderstood. I think the engineering meaning (with which I am cognizant) is really just a slightly special adaptation of the general case: datum means literally 'given thing'.

Thus data are 'given things', and one distinction that I always try to maintain professionally is between data (given things, like Planck's constant or a set of engineering datums - sorry, I have to express it like that here!), and measured things, such as experimental readings.

Many people refer to measurements as data, but this is not correct as they are not really given. Except of course, that someone, say A, measures something and passes the measurement on to B, so to B it is an item of data (that is a datum). (So it all begins to look a bit arbitrary!)."

Correspondent 3 replies to Correspondent 1:

"Your explanation of the origin of the word datum is interesting. However, I've always used the word parameter to signify given values such as fixed constants, and data to imply that a measurement has been made. This may not be linguistically accurate, but I think it's common usage."

Correspondent 4 replies to Correspondent 3:

"Your usage and (Correspondent1's) are not mutually exclusive. A datum is not a parameter but a point from which measurements are made."

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