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The Fourth of July found me, like any stereotypical red-blooded American male, in front of a grill cooking meats during the day and in the living room playing Cranium once night set in. The game was going well, in that my team was beating the other two, but then one of the other teams got a trivia question asking “What animal is in the Elmer’s Glue logo?” and my world turned upside-down.

Here's the Elmer's logo, in case you don't remember kindergarten.

The asked team answered “cow”, to which I helpfully added “duh”. But the asking team said, “No, it’s a bull. Cows are female,” and the asked team all nodded their heads sadly in agreement. I was confused; sure, cow can refer to a specifically female animal, but I speak of cows all the time without knowing their gender. I can’t remember how the rest of the game turned out*, because from that point on, I couldn’t stop thinking about the best word to refer to a single animal of the species Bos primigenius taurus.

A week passed, and I’d pretty much forgotten about the cow question, aside from a subconscious cattle-directed malaise that prevented me from enjoying lolcows or Cow Appreciation Day at Chick-fil-A.

Lolcow

lol

And then, on a lark, I was perusing the blog Starlingford Chronicles, and found this recent post asking the same question that my infuriatingly persistent subconscious was asking. With the question returned to the forefront of my mind, either I had to settle it or it would settle me.

So I went straight to my shelf of grammar books to see how others had settled the question. Alas, it appears that grammar books are now intended for the unlanded elite, containing virtually no information about farm animals. I was surprised to see that even grammar books ignore the plight of the modern farmer. Thus, like the farmer, we must strike out on our own to find the answer. Let’s start by looking at the word cattle.

Cattle, the OED says, comes from Middle English catel, which is an adoption into English of the same word in Old Northern French, which in turn comes from the Latin capitale. This is the same Latin word that gives us Modern English capital; the divergent meanings are the result of a fairly interesting semantic drift.

First cattle referred to any wealth or property, then more specifically in feudal times it referred to “movable” wealth, which at the time was pretty much limited to livestock. By 1500, cattle was almost exclusively used to refer to livestock. Back then, it could refer to any type of livestock or any mixtures of kinds of livestock, and thus we see examples like:

(1a) Is wool thy care? Let not thy cattle go / Where bushes are, where Burs and Thistles grow [Dryden, 1697]

(1b) By cattle, in this act, is to be understood any bull, cow, ox, steer, bullock, heifer, calf, sheep, and lamb, and no other cattle whatever. [UK Parliament, 1741-2]

(1c) […] among all manner of bovine, swinish and feathered cattle. [Carlyle, 1830]

Between then and now, the general livestock meaning lost out to the more specific meaning of a bovine, as in this OED attestation from 1836:

(2) In the usual acceptation of the word [cattle] it is confined to the ox.

Unfortunately, cattle entered the English language strictly as a mass noun, much like its sibling capital**. (Mass nouns, if you aren’t familiar with the term, are words like milk or money that lack a grammatical number and resist being treated as a singular noun, as in the ungrammatical *a money.) Because these words were borrowed into English as mass nouns, they didn’t come with countable versions. That’s not surprising for capital, as it’s not something easily quantized — there isn’t really a unit of capital — but (bovine) cattle has an obvious unit: a single animal.

Why hasn’t cattle been countified then? Well, there’re two common ways of creating a count noun from a mass noun. The simpler is to just use the mass noun into a count noun as-is; this has happened for many people with e-mail, which came from the mass noun mail, but now is often used as a count noun (“I sent an e-mail about that”). It’s also common for food and drink (“I’ll have an orange juice.”) In theory, this could be done for cattle, and it is occasionally. Google shows 460k hits for the phrase “a cattle is”, but most of these look to be from countries or writers for whom English is a second language.

The second method is to create a phrase with an explicit quantity stated for the mass noun. This is pretty common for inherently quantized mass nouns: a grain of rice, a blade of grass, a piece of mail, etc. Cattle does have such a phrase, the technical term head of cattle, but it’s jargonic, generally limited to encyclopedias and agricultural reports.

Neither of the countified versions of cattle have caught on in standard speech. That leaves us to seek out count nouns that are not derived from cattle. Here the problem is either over- or under-specificity. Cow is the word I’ve always used, but technically speaking, cow can denote the female from a range of species, including elephants, alligators, dolphins, whales, and Komodo dragons (if Wikipedia is to be trusted). Bulls are always male and calves always young, even informally, and they also suffer from the same ambiguity in what species they are. There’re a bunch of very specific terms, such as heifer, ox, steer, micky, yearling, or pollard, but using them correctly requires substantially more bovine familiarity than most of us have. And speaking of bovine, even it doesn’t quite work, because technically speaking, bovines aren’t strictly cattle; bison are generally considered bovine as well.

So with all of that out there, what do you do the next time you’re driving down the road and you notice a farm with a lonely Bos primigenius taurus standing on a hillside?

A cow?

"What did you call me?"

You can go ahead and inform your carmates that “there’s a head of cattle on that hill”, but unless they’re ranchers, they’ll probably think you’re describing a gruesome bovine decapitation. You can squint and try to determine at 50 miles per hour the gender of the animal, or even go for the gold and assess its age and (if female) the number of calves it’s had in order to ensure that you’re calling a heifer a heifer. You can point out the “bovine” to the other humans in the car, but you’ll be being both technically imprecise and strangely formal, so your friends may suspect you of being a robot.

Or you can accept the standard informal usage and mention the cow. Is it technically accurate? Potentially not, although you’ve got around a 50% chance. Unfortunately, all your other options are potentially inaccurate or overly technical. Cow at least has the advantage of being widely accepted as a general term in various dictionaries. And there are even attestations of the technically paradoxical “male cow” and technically redundant “female cow” on the web.

English has a hole here, and it’s up to you how you want to fill it. Unless you’re playing Cranium, of course.

Summary: Cattle doesn’t have a singular form, aside from the technical term head of cattle. There isn’t a single word that means specifically a single cattle of unstated gender and age. As such, even though it’s technically inaccurate, cow is generally used in informal situations as the singular form of cattle.

[Update 07/13: Anndra in the comments noted that Scots use the word beast as the genderless singular of cattle. This reminded me that there is a word that is specific to a bovine animal and is genderless and ageless: neat, as in neatfoot oil. Unfortunately, beast is of limited geographical reach, and neat is archaic, although I might try to adopt one or both into my lexicon all the same.]

*: Okay, I can. We lost.

**: Of course, this is in reference to capital meaning to money, wealth, etc., as in capitalism. Capital can be a count noun when it refers to the head of a column or an upper-case letter.

Some short time ago, I stumbled upon a delightful blog known as the ragbag, which I quickly subscribed to after reading about five posts, in no small part because reading it reminds me of the sort of strange conversations I used to have in college with my suitemate and fellow mathemagician. (One of the more memorable of these conversations took place in a physics lecture hall immediately prior to a talk by some famous mathematical physicist, and revolved primarily around my new electric green jacket, which, as a welder’s jacket, happened to be flame-retardant — a fact whose veracity I had confirmed the night before by burning a small hole in the armpit and watching as the flame did not spread. As the conversation grew more intense, covering the potential range of uses of a jacket that would not immediately combust, the fellow seated in front of us turned around and stared at us a moment, almost as though he thought we were unbalanced. That fellow was John Nash, of A Beautiful Mind fame.)

A recent ragbag post about the first Gordon Bennet Balloon Cup, the world’s oldest dirigible race, led me to his less-recent but still-more-fascinating post about an 1808 duel in which the dueling weapons were blunderbusses and the duelists were two thousand feet above the ground in separate hot-air balloons. The winner successfully shot down the other’s balloon, smashing his foe to the ground in a manner that, while perhaps needlessly brutal, was undeniably stylish. My interest in further details led over to Wikipedia, where by turns I moved from the code duello to deloping to that most famous of duels featured in a “got milk?” commercial, the Burr-Hamilton throwdown.  (By the way, Wikipedia notes that Hamilton may have pushed the duel as a strange suicide plot that would cost his life but also utterly destroy Burr’s.  Sure enough, the duel did lead to then-Vice-President Burr’s fall out of politics and his eventual exile.)

Seeing as I had some looming deadlines, I couldn’t just stop at Burr & Hamilton. I pressed onward through early American history to Burr’s treason, secession attempts, John Brown’s rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Bloody Kansas, and finally, to the caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks.

The Sumner-Brooks affair, as it’s genteely called, took place in 1856.  You might remember it from AP U.S. History, where it gets substantial discussion because it captures the zeitgeist of the immediately pre-Civil War period and also features a guy getting walloped with a cane. Charles Sumner was a senator from Massachusetts, an ardent abolitionist who delivered a three-hour long and at times personally insulting speech on the floor of Congress lambasting the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its authors. (This was the act that overturned the Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in both Kansas and Nebraska, and instead allowed slavery in those territories if the voters approved.) A few days later, Preston Brooks, a South Carolinian representative and goatee enthusiast, took umbrage with Sumner’s insults of the act’s authors, one of whom happened to be his uncle. Brooks approached Sumner in a mostly deserted Senate chamber, informed him that certain portions of the speech did not sit well with him, and proceeded to whale mercilessly on Sumner’s head with a cane, stopping only once the cane broke. Senators who attempted to come to Sumner’s aid were met by another South Carolinian representative, Laurence Keitt, who pointed a pistol at them and shouted “Let them be!” Sumner became a hero in the North, and Brooks a hero in the South. Some other things happened thereafter, something about a Civil War, emancipation, etc., but I have no idea about the details of all that because when we covered those parts of American history in class, I was too busy thinking about duels, canings, and the Whiskey Rebellion.

There’s a famous political cartoon of the Brooks-Sumner affair, one that I’ve known for years and could still sketch from memory; you’ll see it below. But there was one thing about the cartoon that I hadn’t noticed until I looked at it this time.

Yes, there it is, in the caption, a rogue apostrophe sneaking into a plural! A little reminder that apostrophe misuse isn’t new. (And goes back considerably further than 1984.) And it’s not just some private correspondence in which this error occurs; this was a lithograph intended for widespread distribution. Rather amazing, huh? So give the next apostrophe misuser you encounter a break; they just might be the next John L. Magee.

Hopefully this will console some of you prescriptivists who see the misuse of apostrophes to mark plurals as a sign of our society’s descent into barbarism. We might misuse our apostrophes, but at least we don’t try to bash a sitting Senator’s brains in for arguing that slavery is bad! It’s further evidence that societal progress and grammar mistakes are not tied together! In fact, maybe it’s our increased misuse of apostrophes that makes us the enlightened society we are today! Brazenly misuse enough apostrophe’s, and maybe gay couple’s will be treated fairly, everyone will get health care, war’s will end! Just don’t get your hope’s up.

Suppose you were reading and came to the following line:

“She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.”

Would you …
(a) continue reading, because that’s a perfectly acceptable sentence, or
(b) throw a tantrum and insist that the author is an imbecile speeding the wholesale destruction of the English language?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably answering (a). If you’re answering (b), I regret to inform you that you hate the writing of C. S. Lewis.

And if you’re the sort to answer (b), the sort of person who rages at the alleged grammatical buffoonery of your fellows, I’m sure it’s because you think you’re doing us all a favor, and that your condescending tone is justified because: first, you’re being helpful regardless of the tone you’re using; second, people only learn through negative conditioning, and so it is your duty, however unpleasant, to rub their noses in it to keep them from going on doing it; third, only a truly illiterate mouth-breather would be so moronic as to make such a mistake, and such imbeciles are below contempt and probably don’t even realize that you’re condescending to them anyway; and fourth, given the Heruclean effort you’ve put into learning the English language as impeccably as you did, it’s really only fair that you get to be a little self-satisfied and perhaps even gloat a smidge.

The only problem with this view is that all you’ve managed to learn about English is how to get your brain to release some satisfying endorphins every time you blindly regurgitate some authority figure’s unjustified assertion. You’re not helping; you’re just getting someone to pretend to agree with you long enough to shut you up. Or worse, you’re scaring people into submission to a point where they feel compelled to preface their speech with apologies for any unknown violence their words are committing against the presumed propriety of the language. Never forget, though, that language is the people’s. Your witless superstition will, by-and-large, be ignored by the speakers of the language, and the alleged impropriety will almost certainly win out in the end. Don’t mistake yourself for a brave defender of our language against the barbarians at the gates when, in truth, you’re nothing but a millennialist shouting about the end-times of the English language. Meanwhile, the world spins on, and the language flourishes, hale and hearty.

One great example of this situation is the shouting down of those who use singular they.  I’ve wanted for some time to have one place to send everyone who complains about singular they, a single page that can debunk whatever junk they’re peddling against it. There’s been lots of great stuff written about why singular they is acceptable, but every time I want to smash the arguments against it, I have to waste time jumping through old Language Log posts and books and whatnot, so I figured I’d finally go about summarizing it all. Without further ado, here’s the evidence for singular they, and why you ought to stop “correcting” it.

Historical usage: Geoffrey Chaucer is widely credited as the father of English literature. He was one of the first well-known authors to write in Middle English instead of the prevailing literary tongue, Latin, bringing legitimacy to the language. And, what’s this? Why, it’s a line from The Canterbury Tales, ca. 1400:

And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up […]”

It’s a little hard to tell in the Middle English, but whoso is a quantified expression, like whoever, that is syntactically singular, but then is paired to the syntactically plural they. So, since at least the beginnings of literary Middle English, 600 years ago, it’s been all right to use singular they. It’s been consistently attested since then; Henry Churchyard reports examples from the Oxford English Dictionary in 1434, 1535, 1643, 1749, 1848, and a wide variety of years in between. There has literally been no point since 1400 when singular they went unattested in contemporary English.

Usage by good writers: Lest one counter the historical point by claiming that it was a mistake or an illiterate usage, it should be noted that singular they has been employed by revered writers throughout its history. A list of examples from some such authors (including Chaucer’s and C. S. Lewis’s quotes above) is available on Churchyard’s site. Among the luminaries: Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Shakespeare, William Thackeray, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde.   The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has still more examples for those who prefer their empirical data to be overwhelming.  And, if you subscribe to Mark Liberman’s one-liner “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” you’ll be interested to see that the King James Version, along with the Tyndale, Bishop’s, and Geneva Bibles, along a range of other versions of the Christian Bible all employ singular theys.  (I’m not sure of the stance of non-Christian religious texts. I imagine no religion has a commandment disavowing singular they, but I have not studied comparative religion.)

Acceptance by authorities: So it’s historically attested, with usage by great writers. “But great writers are fallible!”, cries the grammaticaster*, ignoring the implication in this that the grammaticaster is substantially more aware of the rules of our language than its best writers. “Grammatical authorities agree that singular they is a barbarism!”

This appeal to imagined authority wouldn’t be convincing regardless, but it rings especially hollow when you realize it’s patently false. Certainly many prescriptivists assert that singular they is an affront to the language. Some even put it in books. Eric Partridge, for instance, says it’s so in Usage and Abusage, supplying exactly no argumentation for his opinion.

But The New Fowler’s, 3rd Edition, which carries on its front cover the subtitle “The acknowledged authority on English usage”, takes a neutral-to-positive stance on singular they, calling the issue “unresolved” but noting that it “is being left unaltered by copy editors” and that aside from pedants, “such constructions are hardly noticed any more or are not widely felt to lie in a prohibited zone.” [p. 776] (This is an especially interesting stance because it goes against Fowler’s own original position from 1926.) Grammar Girl also comes down unambiguously in favor it, if she’s your cup of tea.

Some old style guides even saw the light a century ago. An English Grammar by Baskervill & Sewell, originally published in 1896, states that while he is preferred to singular they in general, they is “frequently found when the antecedent includes or implies both genders. The masculine does not really represent a feminine antecedent […]” (Italics in original.) Further, as an exercise, they give examples of singular they, and tell the reader, “In the above sentences, unless both genders are implied, change the pronoun to agree with its antecedent.” (Again, italics in original.)

There was even an article in Robert Hartwell Fiske’s fervently prescriptivist Vocabula Review arguing for singular they. The money quote: “We have seen that history is not on the side of those who would ban singular they from written texts; neither is logic; nor is majority rule.” If you needed an authority figure to tell you that singular they was all right, well, I hope you might find it harder to find one against singular they.

Singular/plural syntactic disagreement: Then, of course, there’re the self-styled logicians who say that they can’t be used with an indefinite pronoun like everybody because they have different numbers.  After all, you say they are but everybody is, and so that proves it.  A moment’s reflection shows that this argument is fallacious, especially if in that moment’s reflection you think of a sentence like

(1) My family stops by regularly, and they always bring pizzas.

My family is syntactically singular in American English, as seen in the conjugation of stopsThey is syntactically plural, as seen in the conjugation of bring.  And yet, (1) is a well-formed sentence, and the other option (“My family stops by regularly and it always brings pizzas”) sounds absurd.  The key point here is that it’s not the syntactic number, but rather the semantic number that matters.  And everybody is semantically plural, just like they.  Don’t believe me?  Consider this trio from Geoff Pullum:

(2a) Everybody knows each other.
(2b) They know each other.
(2c) *He knows each other.

Each other is a reciprocal pronoun that requires a plural antecedent, or in non-linguistic terms, whoever each other refers to has to be plural.  So it works in (2b), where it can refer to the semantically plural they, and it doesn’t work in (2c) with the semantically singular he.  Since (2a) is a grammatical sentence, we know that everybody can be semantically plural.  Since everybody can be semantically plural, we know that there’s nothing wrong with using they with it.  And, as we’ll see in the next section, this agreement only matters if you insist that everybody and they have a pronoun-antecedent relationship, which probably isn’t the right way of looking at it.

It’s not really a pronoun relationship anyway: The above argument supposes that they is a pronoun referring to a syntactically plural but syntactically singular quantified expression like everybody.  But what if you’ve got a semantically singular one like anybody? Is it essential that they and the quantified expression agree in number at all?  Steven Pinker argues that it isn’t:

The logical point that everyone but the language mavens intuitively grasps is that everyone and they are not an antecedent and a pronoun referring to the same person in the world, which would force them to agree in number. They are a “quantifier” and a “bound variable,” a different logical relationship. Everyone returned to their seats means “For all X, X returned to X’s seat.” The “X” is simply a placeholder that keeps track of the roles that players play across different relationships: the X that comes back to a seat is the same X that owns the seat that X comes back to. The their there does not, in fact, have plural number, because it refers neither to one thing nor to many things; it does not refer at all.”

And that’s the weird thing.  Here’re these pedants crying about how English has to adhere rigidly to logic, and they don’t notice the one time the language actually behaves like a system of formal logic.  The point is that singular they can behave non-referentially; it’s an entirely different word from the standard referential pronouns he or plural they in these cases.  In fact, Pinker notes that some other languages have different words for the two meanings.  Since this they doesn’t pick out any specific entity or entities, it functions like the variable x in the mathematical expression 2(x + 7).  Can he be used in the same way as they, as a bound variable?  Sure, but that leads to the next point.

he isn’t gender-neutral: Some claim that singular they is unnecessary because he is gender-neutral, and that this whole kerfuffle about singular they being in any way good or useful only came about when “arrogant ideologues began recasting English into heavy artillery to defend the borders of the New Feminist state.” That’s from an article in The Weekly Standard by David Gelernter, a computer science professor at Yale. See,

“Ideologues can lie themselves blue in the face without changing the fact that, to those who know modern English as it existed until the cultural revolution and still does exist in many quarters, the neutral he ‘has lost all suggestion of maleness.'”

Yep, back before the evil, scary cultural revolution of the 1970s, no one ever saw anything odd about gender-neutral he.  And we see this by the fact that back in 1896, when women couldn’t vote in the U.S., Baskervill and Sewell thought that he sounded weird with mixed company. And we see evidence in the fact that singular they has been used since Chaucer’s time.  No, wait, that’s the opposite of his claim!  Nuts!

If you really think that he is gender-neutral, you ought to find nothing wrong with the following sentences:

(3a) At the funeral, everyone was dressed to the nines, each wearing his swankest tie or nicest dress.
(3b) Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes?

Geoff Pullum came up with (3b), and I think it’s the clincher. I just can’t picture any competent speaker of English saying it and thinking it correct.  Sometimes it might be the case that he is approximately gender-neutral, but it’s not so in the general case.  There are many such examples where he sounds bad compared to a truly gender-neutral pronoun.

Equal ambiguity: Some others, often members of the “Don’t start a sentence with since!” set, complain that another problem with using they with a quantified or generic expression is that it introduces ambiguity. For instance, who does they refer to in

(4) Everyone meeting the royal family said that they were gracious?

Yes, that’s ambiguous as to whether the visitors or the royal family were gracious. Yes, replacing they with he removes the ambiguity. But what about

(5) Everyone meeting the new principal said that he was gracious?

What’s this? He has led to an ambiguity?  Inconceivable!  Note that (5) wouldn’t be ambiguous with a singular they.  Like the Oxford comma, sometimes singular they introduces an ambiguity, but just as often it avoids an ambiguity. Ambiguity is par for the course with pronouns with multiple referents, anyway:

(6a) Bob asked Jim if he was fat.
(6b) The Romans befriended the Gauls, but they slew them.

These sorts of ambiguities are common, even in edited writing, because the surrounding sentences give context to the ambiguous sentence.  Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance, one of the most prominent books in English literature, has almost 40 examples of “they * them” (e.g., they overtook them, they seek to stifle them).  That’s a lot more examples than one would expect if this sort of ambiguity were so crippling.  So ambiguity in singular they isn’t a deal-breaker either.

Summary: You don’t have to use singular they yourself.  You can go ahead and re-work your sentences to avoid it. You can employ he or she, or s/he, or a made-up gender-neutral pronoun of your own devising like xe.  You can even just stubbornly plow on, using he as a gender-neutral pronoun until you grow tired of people pointing out that it isn’t really.  I don’t care, and you’re not grammatically wrong.  But you’re just making a fool of yourself when you go around telling users of singular they that they’re wrong, because they’re not.

*: Grammaticaster, by the way, is one of my new favorite words, learned from the book Dimboxes, Epopts, and Other Quidams. It refers to a “petty, self-styled export on grammar, usually a niggling, precise type who can stab a bony finger at a dangling participle or split infinitive but lacks a true appreciation of writing in all its riches and varied styles. The rule-conscious pedant who sees writing not as good or bad but as right or wrong.” Or as the OED more briefly puts it, “A petty or inferior grammarian. (Used in contempt.)”

**:The information above was compiled from a number of sources, most of which are mentioned in the post, but here’s a few others that I found useful and may or may not have linked to above:
Grammar Girl: Generic Singular Pronouns
Language Log: Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents so there
Language Log: Singular they with known sex
Language Log: “Singular they”: God said it, I believe it, that settles it.
Language Log: Lying feminist ideologues wreck English, says Yale prof
The Lousy Linguist: Singular ‘they’ is old, logical, and grammatical
Wikipedia: Donkey pronoun

“Using data as a singular is wrong,” writes Barbara Walraff in Word Court.  I agreed with this in my middle-school days, when I strove to show that I was destined for great things and illustrated it by being painfully, officiously, incessantly prim.  I went to science fairs, and on the little note cards that carried my polished speech about bacteria, or supernovae, or whatever it was I was claiming to have made an important discovery about, I usually wrote “The data show that …” just before revealing the results that I expected would blow the judges away. Surprisingly, though, they weren’t shocked by results such as “oil-eating bacteria do indeed eat oil” nor amazed by my revelations that “salt-water shrimp die in fresh water”.  But maybe they were just too distracted by the phrase “the data show” to actually listen to what it was that the data were showing.

I stopped generally treating data as a plural a few years ago, because no matter how many times I used it, it always sounded like I was putting on airs.  I know, I know — data entered the language as the plural of the Latin borrowing datum, and therefore data forever should be a plural in English.    But it’s really not so simple as that.  I’m not about to argue that data are is wrong.  But I am going to argue that there are some reasonable reasons to accept data is.

Exhibit A: the acceptability of — in fact, the preference for — data is in certain circumstances.  There are two major senses for the word data.  The original sense is a collection of numbers, facts, results, etc. from experiments and observations, as in (1).  The other sense is a collection of information stored on a computer, usually in binary form, as in (2).

(1) Lack of data is killing (macro)economics
(2) Method to increase the amount of customer data on a hard disk drive

The second sense of data is a mass noun; it sounds quite odd to say “I have a data/datum on this hard drive”.  It’s like mail, milk, money, and some non-m words as well.  Mass nouns receive singular agreement:

(3a) Your mail is/*are sitting on the table.
(3b) The data on these hard drives is/*are corrupt.

So for this computerized sense, data is is not only acceptable, but strongly preferred. (There are a few instances of plural agreement with computer data, but these are quite rare.)  Now here’s the problem: nowadays it’s awful hard to separate the two senses of data.   I, for instance, build computer models of human language usage.  So my data is a collection of facts in the world that is represented as a collection of binary digits on a computer disk; I could be using either sense of data to describe it.  So what’s the problem with choosing to treat it as a mass noun, if that’s one possible form for it?

Exhibit B: other Latinate words have shed their plural history for the singular.  Most prominent amongst these is agenda.  Yes, agenda, meaning the set of points to be discussed in a meeting, the set of things to do in the future, or the book in which a calendar is kept.  Agenda is treated as a singular noun, with agendas as its plural.  Agendum, the “proper” singular form, has pretty well disappeared from English.  Surprisingly, this transition has NOT led to linguistic anarchy, nor any other notable harm to the language or its speakers.  It seems to be safe to allow data to follow the same path.

Exhibit C: there is not always agreement between semantics and syntax.

(4a) Where are my pants?
(4b) My scissors have rusted.
(4c) I own many pairs of plaid shorts.

What do these sentences have in common?  Each refers to a semantically singular object with plural syntactic agreement.  Note that each of these objects is composed of two parts, but each undeniably functions as a whole.  A pair of pants is not like a pair of shoes in that regard, because you could have a single shoe, but not a single pant — that’s a pant leg.  (I’m ignoring Express’s Editor Pant here.)  So if we English speakers are willing to tolerate a single object taking plural agreement, why can’t we tolerate the “plural” data taking singular agreement?

Exhibit D: Lastly, when I’m speaking of data as a linguist, I’m not just talking about a set of facts, but rather a collection of facts, observations, arguments, and analyses.  It is rare, in this day and age, that the points of data in an experiment, taken alone, can justify a claim.  (I’m pretty sure this is the case in most fields.)  The fact that people take longer to read certain words in a certain task does not, in and of itself, establish that these words are harder than others.  Rather, this fact, combined with a set of assumptions and analyses that we all agree to accept, establishes the claim.  We’re viewing the datums as a sort of team, all working together.  In that sense, the data is an inter-related mass, rather than a series of separable points of data.  Thus, they ought to be reasonably thought of as a mass or collective (like family or team) noun, either of which would take singular agreement in Standard American English.

That’s four reasons why I think data is should be all right.  Insisting that people should say data are, in spite of the fact that an American English speaker can’t use data are without sounding pretentious or outmoded, is stupid.  You’re welcome to keep using it, but stop making other people use it too.  I don’t see any harm coming to the language based on how you use data.  I don’t see any improvement to the language either.  Go with what feels right.  I’m guessing that’s data is.

Summary: A lot of people insist that data is is unacceptable.  But there’re at least four reasons why data is should be fine.  So if you think, like I do, that data is works better than data are, well, go ahead and use it!  The same holds if you think data are is better.  But it’s stupid to argue that only one or the other is correct.

***

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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