Data on how Latin mud­dles up plu­rals

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - BER­NADETTE KINLAW

One of my re­grets is that I’ve never taken a course in Latin.

It wasn’t an op­tion in my high school, and I’m not sure whether it was of­fered in col­lege. Even if it was, I was more in­ter­ested in lit­er­a­ture cour­ses by then and had lit­tle time for the hard work in­volved in learn­ing a new — old? — lan­guage.

Still, a class in Latin would be help­ful in un­der­stand­ing the way we speak.

Latin’s con­tri­bu­tions to the English lan­guage are vast — too vast for me to write about in a sin­gle col­umn — so I’ll fo­cus on one as­pect that trips up many peo­ple: plu­rals.

I’ll start with “data,” among the most trou­ble­some words from Latin be­cause its use has changed over the years.

The word “data” started out as the plu­ral form of da­tum, a fact or de­tail. As a plu­ral form, “data” should get a plu­ral verb:

The data show that Cad­bury Raisin and Nut bars are the most pop­u­lar.

Un­til the 1970s or so, that was a con­sis­tent rule. But then “data” took on a mean­ing as­so­ci­ated with com­put­ers. “Data” be­came a sin­gle unit, used with a sin­gu­lar verb. “Da­tum” is used rarely.

The data on milk choco­late ver­sus dark choco­late is in­con­clu­sive.

Mer­riam-Web­ster says both con­struc­tions — “data” as a sin­gu­lar and plu­ral noun — are stan­dard today.

Things aren’t as loosey-goosey with other Latin-rooted words:

“Spec­trum” is sin­gu­lar; “spec­tra” is plu­ral.

“Fo­cus” is sin­gu­lar; “foci” is plu­ral. Be­fore you think you have the hang

of it, ask your­self this: Have you ever known English to fol­low the rules? Of course not, which leads us to the fol­low­ing:

“Agenda” is sin­gu­lar, even though it’s from the Latin word “agen­dum.” And the plu­ral is “agen­das.”

“Me­dia,” as in news­pa­pers and tele­vi­sion, is plu­ral.

The me­dia are try­ing to keep pace.

Be­cause that sounds jar­ring to me, I usu­ally write it a dif­fer­ent way:

Me­dia out­lets are try­ing to keep pace.

All this sim­ply means is that it’s not pos­si­ble to have a sweep­ing rule about words that come from Latin. Con­sult your trusty dic­tionary to be sure.


At times, I like to men­tion words that I know I’ll never use any­where else.

Today’s word is “ana­co­luthon.” This is some­thing that is in­con­sis­tent. In lan­guage, it’s when you start a sen­tence one way, then, be­fore you fin­ish, you start a dif­fer­ent one. Per­fect ex­am­ples of this are found in one of my fa­vorite movies, It’s a Won­der­ful Life.

Ge­orge Bailey comes home late at night, de­spon­dent about his life, and Mary has news for him. He uses three ana­co­lutha (yes, I looked that up) in the con­ver­sa­tion.

Ge­orge: You could have mar­ried Sam Wain­wright or any­body else in town.

Mary: I didn’t want to marry any­body else in town. I want my baby to look like you.

Ge­orge: You didn’t even have a hon­ey­moon. I promised you … (he sud­denly catches on) … Your what? (One.) Mary: My baby. Ge­orge: (in ut­ter shock) You mean … Mary, you on the nest? (Two.)

Mary: Ge­orge Bailey las­sos stork.

Ge­orge: Las­sos the stork! You mean you … What is it, a boy or a girl? (Three.) Mary nods.

Sources: Ox­ford Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Us­age, Mer­riam-Web­ster, imdb. com


Mary and Ge­orge Bailey (Donna Reed and Jimmy Ste­wart) en­gage in a lit­tle ana­co­lutha.

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