1. Fowler, writing before the computer age, declared uncompromisingly that ‘data is plural only’, and pointed to the singular datum, which he conceded even then to be comparatively rare. For much of the time, data is used in contexts in which a conscious choice between singular and plural is not necessary:

• Written sources provide systematic periodic data that can show trends and provide other relevant facts —J. Waters et al., 1989.

In some technical contexts (such as sense-data in philosophy), in which the information is regarded as several items, the plural is still usual; but in general use there is a marked tendency towards the singular after about 1970, under the influence of computing (see below), and most examples of the plural have to be sought from an earlier date:

• It is no wonder if some authors have gone so far as to think that the sense-data have no spatial worth at all —William James, 1890

• Most of the data concerning shock and vibration on airplanes are classified —Macduff and Curreri, 1958

• The data come from fairly high doses of radiation —Scientific American, 1972.

2. After about 1970, the primary meaning of data passed to the domain of computing, in which the information concerned is normally regarded as a unit, so that data is treated as singular and used with words such as its, this, and much, rather than their, these, and many (which now sound pedantic and even precious in this connection). This tendency has had a major influence on more general use. If the sentence in the quotations of 1958 and 1972 above were written today, the verbs would almost certainly be is and comes rather than are and come. Examples of singular use:

• They have done little to analyse and interpret this data —Computer Weekly, 1971

• Data is stored on a disk…as minute patches of magnetism —P. Laurie, 1985

• Everything that is happening to Mount St Helens is a ‘classroom’ experience for geologists and scientists scrambling to gather as much data as they can —New Scientist, 1980

• This data is open to a variety of interpretations —T. Harris, 1993.

The plural, however, also continues to be used to emphasize the plural implications of the word data:

• The data…are mapped so that each class has, as far as possible, an equal number of countries —P. M. Mather, 1991.

Modern English usage. 2014.

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