January 28, 2009
Weekly Language Usage Tips: Amount and number & data is or data are
Tip 1: amount and number
This week’s first tip was inspired by a sign prominently displayed next to the elevators in McKee Place.
When I saw it, I just laughed. But then I showed it to some folks, and the general reaction was, ‘What’s wrong with it?’ Ouch. I was going to castigate UPMC Property Management, but I would never chastise you. So instead, our first tip:
‘Amount’ refers to a quantity that cannot (or would not) be counted.
‘Number’ refers to people or things that can be counted.
The words have distinct meanings and are not interchangeable. You should never use ‘amount’ when referring to people. The additional irony in the sign, above, is that it incorrectly refers to people (passengers) as an amount, and then goes on to give them a number (12).
Here are some examples of the way these words should be used.
The amount of snow on my driveway is making it hard to navigate.
The number of snowflakes on your eyelash is three.
I’m going to need a huge amount of salt to melt all of the ice on the sidewalk.
A few grains of salt are all I need to season this asparagus.
The amount of fat on that man is unhealthy.
The number of people who were at the inauguration was astounding.
Do you see the difference? A number can be counted but an amount isn’t counted. But I am not done yet. There are a few other words that follow the same rules as amount and number. These are often confused, too, and the differences should be noted.
You should use these words when you are referring to an amount (a quantity that is not counted): little, less, much.
You should use these words when you are referring to a number (people or things that can be counted): few, fewer, many.
I’d like a little more mashed potatoes, please. BUT I only have a few dollars to spend at the mall.
I have less time than I would like to prepare for this talk. BUT There were fewer people at the seminar than I expected.
They are making much fuss over the test scores that were posted. BUT Many of the students were anxious to see their grades.
I have one more thing to say on the subject, and I’ll state it quickly because I don’t want to confuse the issue. ‘More’ can be used with both an amount and a number.
There is more love in the world than there is hatred AND There are more books here than I will ever be able to read.
That’s enough on this topic for now.
Tip 2: data is or data are
A reader wrote:
In the context of collective nouns, have you discussed “data?” I would be interested in your thoughts. I am of the “data are” school but one sees much “data is.”
I have always supported ‘data are’ since the word, data, is the plural of ‘datum,’ and as a plural noun, it demands a plural verb. Simple, straightforward–but by now, you probably know that when I say that something is straightforward, straightforward is the last thing it turns out to be.
The reader’s suggestion of thinking about it in the context of collective nouns stopped me in my tracks. Suddenly this old dispute became very interesting: is the word, data, simply the plural of datum, or has it evolved into a collective noun therefore requiring the use of a different set of rules? Wow.
And when I stopped to think about it, much to my chagrin, I realized that the word probably had evolved into a collective noun. I came to this realization when I tried to remember the last time I used the word, datum. I could not remember using ‘datum,’ nor could I think of any such use from my friends and colleagues. As I said, wow.
[NOTE: You may notice that I tend to write ‘the word, data’ in this section. That’s because I want to avoid the confusion that can arise from deciding when to use ‘is’ or ‘are’ when referring to the word, not the data themselves. You’ll also notice that I am still using ‘data’ as plural. I’ll explain that below.]
The word, ‘data’ certainly doesn’t set a precedent in its transformation. The words, opera, bacteria. media, trivia, agenda, candelabra, and paraphernalia are just some of the plurals of Latin derivative that have evolved into singular or collective nouns.
So why, then, am I still using the word, data, as plural? Remember our discussion on collective nouns from last week. Whether or not to use a plural verb with a collective noun depends on the intent. If the noun is referring to a unit, you would use the singular verb form. If the noun is referring to a group of individual things acting as individuals, you use the plural verb form.
When we use ‘data’ in academic research, we are usually referring to many individual observations or data points. So the intent is to mean a group of individual things acting as individuals, and that requires us to use the plural verb form so it would be correct to say ‘the data are…’
So, interestingly, my usage hasn’t changed at all–just the reasoning behind it!