The word data, when used to refer to data, is the traditional plural form of the now-archaic datum, neuter past participle of the Latin dare, "to give", hence "something given". In discussions of problems in geometry, mathematics, engineering, and so on, the terms givens and data are used interchangeably. This usage is the origin of data as a concept in computer science or data processing: data is a set of accepted numbers, words, images, etc.
Usage in English
In one sense, data is the plural form of datum. Datum actually can also be a count noun with the plural datums (see usage in datum article) that can be used with cardinal numbers (e.g. "80 datums"); data (originally a Latin plural) is not used like a normal count noun with cardinal numbers and can be plural with such plural determiners as these and many or as a singular abstract mass noun with a verb in the singular form. Even when a very small quantity of data is referenced (one number, for example) the phrase piece of data is often used, as opposed to datum. The debate over appropriate usage continues, but "data" as a singular form is far more common.
In English, the word datum is still used in the general sense of "an item given". In cartography, geography, nuclear magnetic resonance and technical drawing it is often used to refer to a single specific reference datum from which distances to all other data are measured. Any measurement or result is a datum, though data point is now far more common.
Data is most often used as a singular mass noun in educated everyday usage. Some major newspapers such as The New York Times use it either in the singular or plural. In the New York Times the phrases "the survey data are still being analyzed" and "the first year for which data is available" have appeared within one day. The Wall Street Journal explicitly allows this usage in its style guide. The Associated Press style guide classifies data as a collective noun that takes the singular when treated as a unit but the plural when referring to individual items ("The data is sound.", and "The data have been carefully collected.").
In scientific writing data is often treated as a plural, as in These data do not support the conclusions, but the word is also used as a singular mass entity like information, for instance in computing and related disciplines. British usage now widely accepts treating data as singular in standard English, including everyday newspaper usage at least in non-scientific use. UK scientific publishing still prefers treating it as a plural. Some UK university style guides recommend using data for both singular and plural use and some recommend treating it only as a singular in connection with computers. The IEEE Computer Society allows usage of data as either a mass noun or plural based on author preference. Some professional organizations and style guides[dead link] require that authors treat data as a plural noun. For example, the Air Force Flight Test Center specifically states that the word data is always plural, never singular.
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- "...in educated everyday usage as represented by the Guardian newspaper, it is nowadays most often used as a singular." http://www.lexically.net/TimJohns/Kibbitzer/revis006.htm
- "When Serving the Lord, Ministers Are Often Found to Neglect Themselves". New York Times. 2009."Investment Tax Cuts Help Mostly the Rich". New York Times. 2009.
- "Is Data Is, or Is Data Ain’t, a Plural?". Wall Street Journal. 2012.
- The Associated Press (June 2002). "collective nouns". In Norm Goldstein. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus. p. 52. ISBN 0-7382-0740-3.
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...in educated everyday usage as represented by The Guardian newspaper, it is nowadays most often used as a singular.
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- The Author's Guide to Writing Air Force Flight Test Center Technical Reports. Air Force Flight Test Center.