Is Data Singular or Plural?

by Craig Shrives

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Should I write "data is" or "data are"?

"Data" should be treated as singular for a general audience. Of note, "data" is treated as plural in scientific and academic writing, but this is changing.

"Data" is best described as being in transition from a plural word to a singular one. So, if you naturally treat "data" as singular, stick with it because the argument for treating "data" as singular is beating the one for retaining it as a plural.
data is or data are? (singular or plural?)
(This image from Google's Ngram Viewer shows that "data" is treated as both singular and plural. This graph is derived only from published works.)

It's the Latin Plural of Datum! Yeah, So What?

We all know that "data" is the Latin plural of "datum," but that is not a strong argument for treating "data" as plural. "Data" is following the same paths as "agenda" (a former plural of "agendum") and "media" (a former plural of "medium"). The only question is whether "data" has completed its journey yet.

The word "data" has changed. It no longer means "lots of datums" (NB: "datums" is now an accepted plural of "datum"). Nowadays, its meaning is more aligned to "information" or "a collection of datums," both of which are singular terms.

"Data Is" or "Data Are"?

For many people, treating "data" as plural is starting to sound pretentious. Here are two definitions for the word "data":
  • (1) Details, facts, and statistics collected for reference or analysis.
  • (2) Information electrically stored in, operated on, or transmitted by computers.
The first definition is a plural phrase, but the second is a singular phrase. However, look again at the first one. It could easily be rewritten as "a collection of details, facts, and statistics for reference or analysis," which would make it singular. That is crux of this whole debate.

More about "Data"

In the early 1900s, "data" was considered a plural word, and treating it as singular was viewed as uneducated. However, two things happened that started the transition of "data" into a singular word. First, "data" started to become an everyday term, which people viewed as synonymous with "information." Second, the drop-off of Latin from the school curriculum meant that the "plural protection shield" around "data" started to thin. Given its new meaning to the populace and their ignorance of its origins as a plural, "data" quickly morphed into a singular word.

These two sentences now sound fine to the majority of native English speakers:
  • My data is corrupted.
  • The data supports my theory.
However, treating "data" as a plural is still common, and those who work with data (e.g., researchers, analysts, academics) are the most likely to retain its plural status. Nevertheless, for most people, the following sound awkward:
  • My data were corrupted.
  • (We have marked this wrong because we think it sounds awkward. Have your say in the poll below.)
  • The data support my theory.
  • (Awkward)

Why Do Scientists and Academics Treat "Data" as Plural?

From what I have observed, academics who treat "data" as plural do so with deliberate effort (as opposed to naturally). If you watch an academic talking about data, it won't be too long before they slip into treating it as singular, especially when using a verb other than "are."

If these academics are treating "data" as a plural to make the point that it's the Latin plural of "datum," then they are outdated. "Datum" now has its own plural "datums," and "data" has changed its meaning to "information" or a "collection of datums."

Comparing "Data" to "Agenda" and "Criteria"

The word "agenda" is the Latin plural of "agendum," but almost no one treats it as plural. In modern English, it is treated as singular with the plural form "agendas." Conversely, the word "criteria" (the Latin plural of "criterion") is treated as plural because, unlike "agendum," its singular form is still in common usage.

If this were the precedent for whether "data" should be singular or plural, then it should be singular because "datum" has - for all intents and purposes - fallen out of the language. Read more about "agenda" being singular or plural. Read more about "criteria" being singular or plural.

Have Your Say

Personally, I treat "data" as singular, and I agree with those who think "the data are" or "the data show" sounds awkward, even pretentious. However, I am mindful of my bias, particularly as the image above shows that, despite being on the decline, "data are" is still more common than "data is." So, here's a poll, the results of which will be revealed once you've voted:

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See Also

See more unusual plurals. Take a test on plurals. Data – singular or plural? Media – singular or plural? Criteria – singular or plural? Is "news" singular or plural? More about plurals More about forming the plurals of nouns Subject-verb agreement

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