Last night on Twitter I objected to a NASA announcer saying “…any data that is…” rather than “…any data that are.” Why did I object? Well, to be honest, because I was really upset about Antares blowing up, and I was looking for someone I could be mad at. Yeah, I know, not very rational; but sometimes I’m just not.
A friend then replied with the following: ‘But, to summarize, do you also insist on “The agenda are…”? If so, good for you, but the language, per the OED, has moved on.’
The OED certainly is a good source, and I agree with them about agenda. But I still prefer “data” as a plural and “datum” as the singular. But, more important, I am heartily sick of, “the language has moved on.” According to whom? Who gets to decide?
The answer is: I do, because I’m arguing about it, and stating my preference. If you argue about it, and state your preference, then you get to decide too. “The language has moved on” is meaningless rubbish. If it has moved on to the point where no one is arguing about it, then it need never come up. If there are people arguing about it, then it may be in the process of moving on, but it hasn’t gotten there yet. How do I know? Because people are still arguing.
The arguing, you see, is the whole point.
There was a time when “awful” meant “filled one with a sense of awe.” It doesn’t mean that any more. How do we know that? Because no one is using it that way, and no one is arguing for it. In this case, the language has moved on; the proof is that in this case we never hear anyone insisting “the language has moved on.”
Now, perhaps, what you’re saying is, “usage is determined by majority rule, and the majority now does it this way.” If that’s what you’re saying, well, let’s say I disagree. But if so, say so.
In the particular case in question, “data” vs “datum” as the singular, I don’t know that I can find a strong reason for my preference other than being used to it; so if you can find a good reason for your preference, you’re liable to win that argument, and then I’ll stop making irritated tweets correcting anonymous commentators. But make it! Tell me why that usage is better. I’m here. I’m listening. What, it isn’t better? It has no advantages, and you only claim the language has moved on because lots and lots of people say it? That doesn’t convince me this change makes the language more flexible, more powerful, more elegant, more nuanced, better able to express fine distinctions.
Examples: I dislike the current use of “hopefully” because I think the distinction between “I hope,” “you should hope,” and “all right-thinking people ought to hope,” is useful and I don’t like to see it concealed. I dislike the word “proactive” because it sounds as if it is conveying information when in fact it says nothing*. Those two battles are mostly over, but I haven’t given up yet. If you want to argue with me, you are free to do so. If your argument is, “the language has moved on” do not expect to convince me.
Obviously, you have as much right to your preference as I have for mine. Moreover, you have as much right to make a case for or against a given change as I do. But if I insist a usage is wrong, and you don’t agree, then, make the case. “The language has moved on” is never a valid argument, because it contains its own contradiction: as I said above, if it had moved on, we wouldn’t be talking about it. Hell, I’ll even tell you how to make the case. Instead of a strident, smug, empty, “the language has moved on,” try saying this: “Most people have accepted that “data” is a singular noun. The language seems to be changing. Can you make a case for keeping it the old way?” There, see, now you’ve put the burden of proof on me. That’s fair.
Who gets to decide what is correct usage? Anyone and everyone who bothers to have an opinion about it.
Now, it is perfectly reasonable to shrug and say to yourself, “Let the silly dinosaur keep raging; in twenty years everyone who insists that ‘data’ is a plural will be dead, and the language will have moved on.” If you say that, you’ll almost certainly be right. But if that’s your attitude, why are you telling me? Do you expect to convince me that, just because a lot of people use “infer” and “imply” interchangeably, I should adapt myself to it? If you want to convince me, convince me. If you want to roll your eyes and let me fight my doomed battle, do that. But “the language has moved on” is useless as an argument, and empty as an observation. Argue, or shut up.
*For those of who believe “proactive” does convey something, I challenge you to find a real-world situation in which it suggests an action that isn’t better said by simply dropping it and moving on to the next sentence or clause.