Data on how Latin muddles up plurals
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.