Data can be a singular noun

Contract drafting is a specialised form of business writing.  By business writing I mean any writing done at work, whether in a commercial, government or other environment.  Some of the “rules” of good business writing, or of writing generally, can be applied to contract drafting. For example, it is a good idea to use short sentences and paragraphs, and keep the language as plain as it consistent with your drafting intentions.  US-style contract paragraphs that run on for more than a page should definitely be avoided, as should sentences that run on for hundreds of words.

Other aspects of general writing are less relevant to contract drafting.  General writing practice may frown on repeated use of the same word, preferring what Fowler called elegant variation.  In a school essay, it may be good form to refer to someone as a boy in one paragraph, a lad in another, and a youth in a third.  In contracts, the same word should be used repeatedly if the same meaning is intended.  If a different word is used (eg affiliate in one clause and subsidiary in another), the judge may assume that a different meaning is intended.

Understanding what the general writing conventions are, when to use them, and when to avoid them, are all part of the contract drafter’s toolkit.  An advanced contract drafter is likely to be aware of some of the guide books in this area, such as (in the UK) the Complete Plain Words, originally by Sir Ernest Gowers, or (in the US) the Chicago Manual of Style.

As time passes, writing conventions change.  People of IP Draughts’ generation know that some people get very exercised about certain conventions.  If you disagree with, or don’t care about, these conventions, that is fine by me, but be aware that your professional work may be disparaged for apparently trivial reasons by people who do care about them.  Some of us are tempted to go along with the conventions for a quiet life.  Some of IP Draughts’ younger colleagues are unfamiliar with these conventions.  Perhaps Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells has reached retirement age, and no longer carries the nation with him or her (or do I mean them?)

In no particular order, and with no attempt at being comprehensive, here are some that have been hard-wired into IP Draughts’ consciousness as a result of childhood indoctrination.  When he breaks the convention (as he often does) he does so with a few drops of residual guilt running through his veins.

Don’t split an infinitive.  But splitting an indicative is fine.  To boldly go where no man has gone before is considered wrong, but for tedious historical reasons you will boldly go is fine.

Data is a plural noun.  The singular form is datum.

Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.  Winston Churchill is thought to have been writing ironically when he scribbled in the margin of a paper that had been sent to him, “up with this I will not put”.  By using this convoluted phrase he avoided saying “I will not put up with this”; the latter version ends with a preposition.

Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction (eg and or but).  As a mischievous schoolboy, IP Draughts liked to start sentences with “But for the …” (an exception to the no-conjunctions rule) in the hope of catching out his pedantic English teacher.

General drafting conventions are covered in our course on Advanced Contract Drafting – details here.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Data can be a singular noun

  1. patently

    I anticipate chaos if you start referring to an individual item of data as a datum, especially if any patent attorneys are involved. We will all assume that you mean a fixed reference point from which other locations can be measured (the other meaning of datum) and do our best to work that into the context.

    On the subject of split infinitives, my first job was as a technical assistant to a partner in a firm of patent attorneys who detested the split infinitive with a vengeance. By the end of my time with him, I could split an infinitive so thoroughly and so subtly that if he spotted it, it would require an almost complete rewrite of an otherwise acceptable letter of advice in order to remove it. I would give myself 10 points if he didn’t spot it, 5 points if it took more than 5 minutes of scribbling to re-word the letter.

  2. ipalchemist

    You say: ‘By using this convoluted phrase he avoided saying “I will not put up with this”; the latter version ends with a preposition.’ But “this” is not a preposition – it is a pronoun. I think the usual quotation is ‘up with which I will not put’, and the avoided construction is ‘which I will not put up with’. “With” is the preposition avoided. ‘With which I will not put up’ is another possible avoided construction, but “up” is here arguably an adverb not a preposition (I think). I know, I am being a horrible pedant, but I am sure that someone else can out-pedant me.

  3. Francis, I agree with your agendum, and reject traditional grammar dogmata. But before we come to a final decision, perhaps we should hold some referendums or write some memoranda or refer to some encyclopediae…

    • In fact I think you raise more issues than you might intend. One is whether a morphologically plural noun (perhaps plural only in origin, now long forgotten) should be treated as a plural grammatically and another is whether loan-words should be pluralized according to their language of origin or using rules internal to English.

      So: referendums v referenda engages the latter question. Personally, I’ve always thought it odd that certain languages should now be given special treatment in a time when most people are not classically educated. After all we do not say “axolomeh” when talking of many axolotls, so why should be talk of hippopotami?

      Still, it is an old habit. I remember reading Pyramus and Thisbe and wondering why the accusative of Thisbe was “Thisben” (I hadn’t read any Greek then). So even the Romans did it.

      I think we should relax and allow native English usage slowly to take over classical plurals and not loose sleep over it.

      As for the grammatical aspect – which is what interested you – for a referendum there is a reasonably sensible notion of the thing that is being referred. I have always understood that was the whole thng – even if several questions were asked, the referendum is a singular noun referring to all of them. A memorandum really ought to be the same – and again we are comfortable with the singular. “Encyclopaedia” is just an odd word.

  4. As someone educated in computer science, I find the use of the word “data” as a plural, as in “the data are…” rather more unpleasant than the metaphorical fingernail on blackboard. It grates every time.

    After all (I am sure you are familiar with the point) if you asked someone “have you read the agenda for today’s meeting?” an answer “yes, I have read _them_” would be a surprise.

    One reason for not using “data” as a plural in intellectual property contexts is that the notion of a “datum” is not well defined. For example: in the context of the database right, where the database is a collection of data (rather than independent works), it is probably unhelpful to think of the data as divided into separate items of data (each a “datum” I suppose). I suspect the directive may not make sense if you were to try to do so – it might also conflict with other concepts of data granularity.

    For example: in a geographical information system, what are the items of data? Single bits, or larger units such as (x,y) pairs or even larger?

    The way that English has always approached this sort of problem is by using the concept of a mass noun. Computer scientists realised early, what I suspect classically educated lawyers did not quite so early, that data is like sugar and butter – it makes more sense to measure it in quantities (kilobytes, pounds and ounces) and to think of it like that than as many single items.

    The problem with “data” and similar uses that you highlight is that some people won’t like whatever you do. I’d suggest if drafting a document to be read by computer science educated individuals (something I do a lot) then treat data as a mass noun. For other audiences, your milage may vary.

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