During a telephone interview for a writing job this week, I was asked if data was singular or plural. ‘Plural’ I gulped with fingers crossed, ‘Though people use it as both.’ After the call I went dashing to Wiktionary and was relieved to have data confirmed as a plural noun (singular, datum).
I was grateful I wasn’t asked to run through the correct usage for collective nouns like company and group, or family and team, where it’s dependent on use. While I instinctively know what works on the page, it’s hard to qualify verbally. Here’s a helpful crib from the BBC if you need it.
Many standard plurals sound odd, like mongoose and mongooses. Uncommon plurals can jar on the page and the tongue. Is the plural of stadium, stadia or stadiums; is the plural of medium, media or mediums? Where both are correct, is it not sensible to differentiate? For example, media is so heavily associated with news streaming platforms, should we use mediums in all other contexts?
Grammar directs language. While mistakes may not impede understanding – the regular confusion of who’s and whose or their, they’re and there, can easily be circumnavigated – the reading experience is smoother when the writer gets it right, and that should be the standard for which we all aim.
That said, even literary greats need back up. The classic texts we analyse at Tricycle Readers will have been line-read by at least one editor, and once in printed form will have been proofread by everyone involved in the process. The smooth read that good grammar provides frees us to dig deep into the work instead of wasting time rearranging the top soil.