Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Data or datum?

August 16, 2008Writing the book

I talk to a lot of people about data. Some of them are experts. And every time I hear one of them say, "Well the data tell us..." or "The data clearly show..." I wince, because that person is going to have a little issue with my book. I chose in the book to make data a singular noun. I see it like sand or hair, or other collections of things that we express in the singular. I went this way because the book is oriented toward non-specialists, and most of them--like me--never use the singular form, datum.

In the same vein, I reversed the copy-editor on many occasions when she replaced my "who" with "whom." When I'm talking, I don't say, "Whom are you talking to?"

If the book had been about baseball, I would have upset the purists by referring to Runs Batted In as RBIs. I would never say that Ryan Howard leads the league in RBI (if he still does at this point, which I doubt). And while I'm on it, it would be very hard to bring myself to replace attorney generals or the proper attorneys general.

By the way, two of the first copies of the book arrived yesterday in Montclair. We're in Erie, and will see them after a seven-hour drive.

Ryan Howard. Does he produce lots of RBI, or RBIs?

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