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The Data are like a Tail-Coat

July 29, 2010

It’s hard to know what is correct. In the old days, there were rules about writing letters and people learned them at school. Now everything is changing and nobody seems to be in charge. This reflects the opinion of many people that I meet as delegates on writing skills training courses.

How do you sign off an email: Regards? Best regards? Best wishes? What does it depend on: Who the recipient is? How they ended their email to you? And how correct is correct? Some people (but they are a dwindling band) are still upset by seeing this in writing:

    Who should I send this to?

And would change it to:

    To whom should I send this?

Other people would make a face at that because it sounds so ridiculous to them that they would never write it, let alone say it. Here is the point, I think. Changes in writing have always lagged behind changes in speaking, rather like formal clothes, which are often similar to the everyday wear of the previous generation. Formal writing tends to follow a slightly old fashioned way of talking.

My father wore a tail-coat and bow-tie on formal occasions, and objected to the use of “contact” as a verb. He would never have said: “please contact me”. My husband wears a dinner jacket and says “please contact me” without a second thought. My son will make his mind up what to wear depending on what’s clean when he wakes up that morning, with scant regard to the formality of the occasion – and uses “text” as a verb.

So – we need guidelines for writing that keep up with the times. Here are some detailed observations and thoughts on the subject – please let me have yours.

Data and other plurals
“Data” is treated by a majority of people as a singular word now as in “the data is complete”. It used to be plural, as in “the data are correct” but we don’t use the singular form “datum” any more, so “data” has come to mean a body of information rather than a single item. The pharmaceutical industry still has a tendency to use “data” as a plural word, but the IT industry most certainly does not.

The word “agenda” has a very similar history, but earlier. “Agendum” was an item to discuss and “agenda”, the plural, was therefore a list of items. Now we use “agenda” as a singular word to mean a list and are quite happy to turn it into a regular plural as in “they have all got separate agendas”. I have a feeling that we will not find a need for “datas”, since there are such expressions as “data sets”. Let me know if you see it though.

“Criteria” remains, for the time being, a plural word. One criterion, two criteria. I have often seen “the key criteria is”, and it may eventually become acceptable but has not done so yet. This is different from the two earlier examples because we actively use both the singular and the plural forms of the word.

He tells it like it is
I openly admit that this kind of phrase makes me cringe every time I hear it. I use “like” as a comparison only followed by a noun or a pronoun. So, I accept these:

    He is behaving like an old-fashioned headteacher
    The new rules are even more like a straitjacket than the old ones
    That is more like it

But not these:

    It looks like it’s raining
    They talk like they have just arrived from America

I prefer “as if” instead of “like”. I know that makes me old-fashioned – but this is exactly my point. Language changes and people catch up at different speeds. How formal does your writing need to be? And what is the difference between “formal” and “correct”?

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