Collective Nouns and Plurals and “Data” – Oh My!

(Blogging using a phone while on a moving bus can be challenging. The first version of this post was gibberish.)

Who decided that collective nouns should be treated as singular in context by Americans and as plural by the English? To illustrate, an American would say “The army is invading,” while a Brit would choose “The army are invading.” This is a perfectly ordinary discrepancy in language like leaving out extra vowels in the spelling of “color.” I think these sorts of differences came about when communication between Americans and real English speakers came with months of delay because a sea voyage was needed to carry people or letters between the two pools of usage. That’s a natural quirk in language as a result of its history.

But I’m here to talk about this because it is also schizophrenic in some cases.

Take the noun “data” for instance. Is it plural? Most people use it as a collective noun, so it’s singular in context but it refers to a number of data items. But stuffy old Scientific American, for example, uses “data” as if they were British: they say things like “The data show” rather than “The data shows.”

What do UKians do with this word? I think they use it like Americans for some reason!

Language is weird. Naturally.

Words and Language and Analyzing the Human Condition

I’m a writer of words — an artist who constructs pictures in people’s minds by lying to them with words and hoping they get it.

I have loved words my whole life. While I was trying to earn an undergraduate degree simultaneously in two different branches of engineering at University while working two nearly full-time jobs to pay for it, I also did a minor in Linguistics out of love for words. Linguistics isn’t about a language, it’s about languages. It’s literally the study of how languages work internally, how they evolve, and their relationships to each other. I loved linguistics because it was all about words and meaning and pronunciation and symbols to represent them. (I have a thing for symbols and alphabets and fonts and typography too.) I think that study of linguistics was the perfect complement to my computer science and electrical engineering — both almost entirely analytical disciplines. Language is about humans, conversation, emotion, and communication. Linguistics is the intersection between the humanity of language and the analytical science of grammar — the math or logical structure of how those things work at a nuts-and-bolts level.

One of my early fascinations with language as a child came from the realization that there were actual rules that made languages work, and yet nobody who participated in the creation of the language, building it, mixing in words from other languages, adding to it, morphing it over time — none of these people actually knew a damned thing about the rules they were following all the while! Natural languages are always structured like the Winchester Mystery House, but there are, in fact, actual consistent grammatical rules underlying all of it. People follow the rules intuitively, by rote. Those that don’t understand and don’t follow the rules are guilty of “bad grammar” — which, if it goes on long enough, results in new rules of grammar, rather than in those people learning to do language “right.”

One of the hardest things for me, as an engineer and as someone who tries to do things “right” is to accept the fact that the definition of “right” for language is not whether it follows rules properly. Not really. The rules are a side-effect. Language is actually defined by how people use the it — for real, in actual communication. For example, if you think ending an English sentence with a preposition is wrong, I have news for you. That old “rule” was abolished in conversational language a hundred years ago, and in print several decades ago. It’s dead. Get over it. This is a situation up with which I simply cannot put. Or something.

Oh, and did you notice my mention of the crazy university workload I was carrying? As I’m sure you have already guessed, I collapsed under that load. I’m a college dropout who has never looked back. The only time that has ever been even slightly an issue was when I was interviewing to work for a company founded by two dropouts who became billionaires: Apple Computer. I got the job anyway. Go figure.