Mind your language

How ‘data’ became like ‘butter’

A slide in certainty about singulars and plurals

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

Someone on Radio 4 said she had heard about the sexism of Grand Theft Auto on ‘Women’s Hour’. It is called Woman’s Hour, though the other is possible, on the model of Children’s Hour. But I was struck in 2014 by a slide in certainty about singulars and plurals.

The three shakiest plurals are data, criteria and bacteria. Data has become not so much a singular noun as an uncountable one, like butter. So speakers can say ‘all the data collected is reliable’. Datum and criterion are almost extinct. A daily paper used a bacteria on its front page to mean a kind of bacterium.

This shakiness is made worse by a change in the way that nouns are used attributively, qualifying other nouns. The rules of English had required them to keep in the singular: a dog biscuit, a vegetable expert, a pig-proof fence. So one would have said bacterium-free environment. Today it is easy to say bacteria-free environment (justifying it on the grounds that the environment is free from bacteria). But one wouldn’t say a pigs-free environment.

The tendency was given momentum by the appointment of officials with informal titles like drugs tsar. It should be drug tsar. A parallel is drug baron. At the moment, newspapers are split between writing drug barons and drugs barons. Last month the Independent reported that the government was thinking of appointing an open data tsar. It would be impossible to call him an open datum tsar. You can have a child-protection officer, but not a datum-protection officer.

The mare’s nest is made messier by the identity in sound of a possessive and a plural: so, is it a pensioners champion or a pensioner’s champion or a pensioners’ champion? We’ve already seen the passing of the Children Act (with a novel of the same name from Ian McEwan), though there is constant discussion of child abuse.

I suppose the process is only like news becoming singular and peas plural. Walter Raleigh wrote of an object ‘the bignesse of a great peaze’. During the changes, people joked about ‘one pea’ or a lack of ‘a single new’. Without laughter it can be a troubling phenomenon. Or ‘a troubling phenomena’, as they say.

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