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Privacy Perspectives | Is 'data' singular or plural? A copy editor's take Related reading: Put these privacy-themed movies in your quarantine queue

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No one takes a job as a copy editor to make friends. My day ebbs and flows between “Yes, you need to spell that out on first instance” and “I don’t care if you don’t like the rule; you still need to follow it.” I find myself ending most conversations with “I don’t make the rules; I just enforce them.” Call me the grammar police, if you will. I'll wear that badge with honor. 

Working in privacy straddles a line between following AP style religiously and going with what the rest of the industry is doing. Just ask IAPP Editor Angelique Carson, CIPP/US, about our conversation on “ad tech,” “ad-tech” or “adtech.” (Sorry, Lique, but it’s “adtech.” Come at me.) So how to decide if “data” takes a singular versus plural verb?

Let’s first look at collective nouns, words that are singular in form but plural in meaning. You wouldn’t say, “My favorite band are the Beastie Boys” (unless you are in the EU, but more on that later). The word “data” refers to factual information, such as measurements or statistics, used as a basis for reasoning or discussion. In essence, it’s all these little points that make up one calculation, just as a family is made up of more than one person.

As a self-proclaimed word nerd, I can’t help but dive deeper into the history and etymology of “data.” Yes, “data” did first appear in 1646 as the plural form of “datum.” These days, the plural of “datum” has taken the form of “datums” and is used in a more mathematical context to describe the measurement between points. In turn, “data” and “datum” have gone on to lead separate lives. Words and language evolve with time. Even Merriam-Webster can get on board with that.

Another point to take into consideration when drawing lines in the sand is that we are an international organization. I, along with our other editors and writers, spend a lot of our days making sure our content is geared toward audiences around the globe. We can’t assume someone in Kenya will know that “HHS” stands for “the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.” However, while I understand the British might make a case for “data” and other collective nouns as plural, we fall back on American English when drawing up our house style guide.

Likewise, a lot of our content appears across multiple platforms, originally premiering in the Daily Dashboard and then making its second act in the Europe Data Protection Digest, Asia-Pacific Dashboard Digest or Canada Dashboard Digest. While we do change dates from “Oct. 29” to “29 Oct.” for purposes of the newsletters, it lives online in the American version. Maybe one day Google Translate will figure out the difference between American and British English and do the work for us, but for now, we default to American English given our headquarters’ geographic location.

Ultimately, AP wins this round since it actually provides guidance on the issue, which isn’t always the case. It states, “(Data) typically takes singular verbs and pronouns when writing for general audiences and in data journalism contexts: The data is sound. In scientific and academic writing, plural verbs and pronouns are preferred.” (As a bonus, “Use databank and database, but data processing (n. and adj.) and data center.” You’re welcome.) And I have to say, I actually agree with this one (again, not always the case) going back to the logic of collective nouns taking singular verbs and argument that language evolves — though not always for the best, admittedly (I’m looking at you, “irregardless”).

And if U.K. Information Commissioner's Office Technology and Innovation Executive Director Simon McDougall, CIPP/E, CIPM, CIPT, agrees, then it must be true.

In the end, there’s always job security in grammar, as long as artificial intelligence and machine learning don’t take over.

Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash


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CIPM, CIPP/A, CIPP/C, CIPP/E, CIPP/G, CIPP/US, CIPT
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