Twelve Tips for Terrific Texts: Tip #9 – Data (Polishing stage)

We’re on the last category in my scicomm series: “polishing”! This is where you do final touch ups. The ninth tip in the series is “data.”

In science, we talk a lot about data. We also argue a lot about the proper use of the word. Is it plural, referring to the multiple of “datum”? Or singular, as one group of “data”?

The short answer to that question is yes. It can be both!

In technical writing, it’s usually plural, meaning it’s combined with plural verb forms, like data ARE. But in colloquial language, such as when communicating with the public, it can be either. “Data” can refer to the multiple of “datum,” as it does in technical writing, or it can be a singular mass noun, and you would use singular verbs with it, like data IS.

Mass nouns refer to things that are uncountable, and they can’t be made plural in the same way as countable nouns. For example, while we might say “two pancakes,” where pancake is countable, we would have to say “three SLICES OF bacon” rather than “three bacons,” because bacon is a mass noun. Isn’t English strange?

So if you’re writing a technical piece or your editor is firmly in the “data should be plural” camp, make it plural. If you’re writing a general interest piece, choose whichever version feels more comfortable for you.

Stay tuned for the next 3 tips!

Communicating your science: polishing: data. Is it plural or singular? Yes. In technical writing, usually plural. Colloquially, it can be either.

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