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Nunberg on “ ‘The data are’: How fetishism makes us stupid”

January 1, 2013

[My 2013 anniversaries post is coming soon – but this is too good not to mention here ….]

Geoff Nunberg has a new post at Language Log on out-of-control copy editing.  It begins this way:

Pedantry, Dr. Johnson said in the Rambler, is the unseasonable ostentation of learning. And learning is never so unseasonable as when its display impedes the workaday business of making sense. Take the sentence from The Economist that I ran across when I was writing my word-of-the-year piece for Fresh Air on "big data":

Yet even as big data are helping banks, they are also throwing up new competitors from outside the industry.

You can see what happened here—the copy editor (it had to be a copy editor, since nobody competent to write about big data would dream of treating the phrase as anything but singular) saw data followed by a singular pronoun and a singular form of be, and corrected them to plurals. The problem is that if you construe big data as a plural then it has to denote a collection of large things, in the same way that big elephants denotes a set of elephants that are each large, not a large set of elephants of any size. In that case, I suppose big data would have to be a collection of facts like this:

π = 3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751…

rather than, say

π > 3

which is a little bitty datum. If you took the sentence at face value, that is, it would be what we grammarians term “idiotic.” But I doubt whether the Economist’s copy editor gave a toss, as they lot say. Sense, shmense—he or she wasn’t about to get caught out treating data as a singular noun.

It gets even better.  Read it all here

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