There still remain many agenda

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In a comment on Geoff Nunberg's "The data are" post, Jo wryly reminds us that the data-is-plural-dammit peevers need to consider their position on the word agenda. The OED's (historically) first sense of agenda is

1. With pl. concord. Things to be done, viewed collectively; matters of practice, as distinguished from belief or theory. Sometimes opposed to credenda. Obs.

with citations like this:

1860 M. F. Maury Physical Geogr. Sea (ed. 8) i. §67   But notwithstanding all that has been done..for human progress, there still remain many agenda. There is both room and need for further research.

Plural agenda is of course etymologically correct:

< classical Latin agenda (neuter plural) business, affairs, in post-classical Latin also divine office (4th cent.), legal proceedings (12th cent. in British sources), plural of agendum thing which is to be done (usually in plural), neuter gerundive of agere to do

Over the past century or two, other uses of agenda have come to dominate, starting with

4. A list of items to be discussed at a formal meeting, typically circulated to attendees in advance. on the agenda: scheduled for discussion at a meeting. Originally as collective plural; now always treated as singular.

1832 Ld. Dover Let. in Proc. Rec. Comm. (1833) 36,   I see among the Agenda of the meeting a question for removing certain Historical Documents..from the Chapter House to the State Paper Office.

1957 E. Hyams Into Dream ii. ii. 101   It's a short agenda, by the way, only two items.

and continuing to

5. In extended use (orig. U.S.).

a. A (notional) list of things to be done, problems to be addressed, or events likely to happen.

b. A campaign, programme, or plan of action arising from a set of underlying principles or motives. Hence: the underlying intentions or motives of a particular person or group.

If you feel that the word data must evermore remain plural, you should also feel compelled to protest the rampant abuse of agenda.


I should add a brief note on the state of play in the field of computer science, in the form of some counts of reasonable (though imperfect) proxy search patterns from the web site of the Association for Computing Machinery. There are 428 instances of "this data is" vs. 179 instances of "these data are". There are 40 instances of "some data is" vs. 6 instances of "some data are" (and no instances of "many data are").

Things like "one data is" and "a data was" do not occur, nor (apparently) do any higher numbers as modifiers (e.g. "three data were discarded" or "seventeen data were found in the couch cushions").

So the dominant pattern is to treat data as a singular mass noun, with a minority usage treating it as a grammatically plural mass noun.



58 Comments

  1. richardelguru said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 7:07 am

    I'll put that on my agendum.

  2. Faldone said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 7:46 am

    There are many who claim that Madama Butterfly are Puccini's greatest opera.

  3. [links] Link salad hears the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen | jlake.com said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 8:18 am

    [...] There still remain many agenda — Language Log with a squib for the "data are plural" crowd. [...]

  4. Roger Lustig said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 8:19 am

    Most of those pedants don't have nearly as many stamina as it would take to be consistent.

    (On the other hand, opera was borrowed from Italian, where it was and is singular. But what did they know?)

  5. Goatherd said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 8:23 am

    Agreed. They are his magnum opera.

    [(myl) That would be magna opera in Latin, unless you mean .44 Magnum opera, for example the set of Dirty Harry movies. In Italian, though, magnum opera is fine, as long as the opera centrally involves a bottiglia or a pistola.]

  6. Alen Mathewson said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 8:42 am

    I have an amateur interest in language so first to admit I may be missing something. However, it seems to me that the issue is not primarly gramatical. As science students, we were taught that data were individual items and that groups of data made up a dataset. Dataset seems to me not to have caught on in non-scientific writing; instead a more ambivalent use of data to mean either the set of data or the individual items of data is used.

    So it's possible that most of the 428 instances of "this data is" occur in sentences about a collection (singular) of items of data whereas the 179 instances of "these data are" occur in sentences about pieces of data considered as discrete items.

  7. Electric Dragon said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 8:45 am

    From Yes, Prime Minister:

    Hacker: We only have one item on the agenda
    Sir Humphrey: Then it is agendum, Prime Minister
    Bernard: I don't think that the Prime Minister got to the 2nd declension…
    [later, when even that item gets removed]:
    Bernard: Well, [writes down, and half-sings] we have no agendum today

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 8:46 am

    Maybe not at the ACM website, but it's not particularly hard to find instances in other technical sources like "There are several data showing that the reactivity increases on moving from platinum(n) to palladium(n) and nickel(n) complexes" or "There are several data showing that breast-feeding has a protective effect in case of celiac disease." And here's one from linguistics scholarship: "The distribution of the Spanish motion periphrases provides several data confirming the hypothesis of the actional matching between the auxiliary and the lexical verb." These don't seem like examples of a "grammatically plural mass noun." Now, maybe these are all hypercorrections introduced by wicked copyeditors or by hapless authors so Stockholmed as to preemptively surrender to a zombie rule before even dealing with a copyeditor. Or maybe it's more complicated and whatever transition has been underway is not yet complete (and for all we know may never be completed). That "agenda" apparently did complete that transition tells us what is possible, not what is inevitable.

    [(myl) The top 10 Google Scholar hits for "several data showing" include 4 whose authors are based in France, 2 from Germany, 2 from Italy, 1 from Hungary, and 1 from Poland; none are from English-speaking countries. The top 10 Google Scholar hits for "some data showing" include 5 from the U.S., 1 from the U.K., 2 from France, 1 from the Netherlands, and 1 from Sweden.]

  9. Adam said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 9:25 am

    Now I'm trying to figure out how to get people talking about "big agenda"…

  10. Ginger Yellow said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:00 am

    Now I'm trying to figure out how to get people talking about "big agenda"…

    Beware the Filofax-industrial complex.

  11. Eric P Smith said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:01 am

    I learned Latin from an early age. So "agenda" sounds plural to me. I can't help it. I try to be accepting of other people's usages, but for myself I find workarounds like "this is on the list of agenda".

  12. Mr Punch said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:23 am

    But … in fact "datum" is used fairly often; so comparisons to, e.g., "agendum," which is never seen, are self-refuting. (BTW my spell-check just approved "datum" and rejected "agendum.")

  13. MikeM said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    Like garbage, data is a collected noun. [And data in, data out.]

  14. John Walden said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    Historically, spaghetti are plural.

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:44 am

    The word "datum" is properly owned by surveyors. It means a surface, line or point with respect to which elevations are measured. Before unification, German surveyors had two data. Anything else is merely pilpul.

  16. Adam B said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:44 am

    I tend to see biologists using "data" — at least in formal writing — as a plural, and computer people using it as a singular mass noun. As a computational biology type, I am never really sure.

  17. Lazar said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:59 am

    @John Walden: Yep, most of the widely known pastas here go that way – spaghetti, ravioli, zitti, penne, rigatoni, linguine, tortellini, and don't forget pierogi. I would feel silly saying "spaghetti are one of my favorite foods", although with the filled pastas I am sometimes tempted to call an individual piece a "raviolo" or "tortellino".

    Spanish charmingly gives us the double-pluralized "espaguetis" and "raviolis".

  18. Rob Solheim said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 11:13 am

    @Lazar: Here in Russia, you can also find the doubly pluralised form of "wrap" (in the tortilla-wrapped snack sense of the word): sg. рапс (raps), pl. рапсы (rapsy). Always makes me cringe a little when I order it/them.

  19. Robert Coren said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 11:19 am

    With respect to plural pastas: Likewise "zucchini". In light of this, I suppose I should try to suppress my automatic negative reaction to the growing use of "panini" as a singular.

  20. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

    Analogously to Russian рапс, German has long had singular Keks (from cakes), plural Kekse, meaning 'cookie'. And French has borrowed media from English (where it, like data, oscillates between plural and singular) as purely singular, resulting in les médias.

    Incidentally, I have long wondered why linguistics uses the borrowing/lending metaphor for the incorporation of words from one language into another. It is very much at variance with ordinary usage, in which the object that is lent and borrowed is meant to be returned.

  21. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

    Robert Coren: When I'm at Starbucks I usually ask for a biscotto with my coffee.

  22. Mike said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

    A related peeve is the insistence that decimal amounts should take the singular, as in "this weighs point five kilogram", even though the precedence of "five" makes most people want to use the plural. Not sure what the Cambridge Grammar says, but I'm assuming that the amount that should take the singular is exactly 1, not all values between 1 and 0.

  23. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

    Mike: try verbalizing 0.5 without referring to notation, and you get five tenths (of a). Singular, no? Now, 1.5 is "one and…" and the "and" makes it plural.

  24. Lugubert said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    Coby, some loans are returned. Old Norse lent its kaka to English, and the plural of cake was returned to give for example Swedish kex.

    And I, a Swede, am consistently and passionately a plural data person.

  25. Dan T. said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

    The example "I see among the Agenda of the meeting" can easily be construed as plural, where what is found "among" the "Agenda" is a multiplicity of instances of an "Agendum".

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

    Mike, isn't it pretty nerdviewish to say out loud "point five kilogram(s)" as opposed to "half a kilogram" or "a half kilogram"? And if you're that nerdy, aren't you going to write it out as 0.5 kg, thereby avoiding the singular/plural issue altogether? Actually, why wouldn't you just say "this weighs five hundred grams" or, if speaking proper English, "a little bit over a pound." (Now I'm imagining the Charge of the Light Brigade as "0.5 leagues, 0.5 leagues, 0.5 leagues onward.")

  27. M.N. said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

    @Eric P Smith:

    I started learning Latin when I was seven, but I nevertheless managed to acquire English normally. It's not an excuse for being a pedant.

    @Mike:

    I think you're right, at least as far as the natural use of English is concerned (I don't know what prescriptivists think about this, if anything). The number 1 seems to be special: any decimal amount takes the plural, even "point one", so it has nothing to do with the "five" in "point five".

    1. a) This weighs .1 kilograms.
    b) *This weighs .1 kilogram.

    Comparatives like the ones in (2) take whatever morphological number marking matches the than-clause, even if this doesn't match the actual number (if there's more than one person, then there are at least two, but the morphology is still singular).

    2. a) More than one person is coming to the party.
    b) (Less/fewer) than two people are coming to the party.
    c) More than zero people are coming to the party.

    This is also the case if the numbers are not required to be whole numbers: all the sentences in (3) are true if the number of points deducted is 1.3, for instance.

    3. a) More than one point was deducted from my score.
    b) (Less/fewer) than two points were deducted from my score.
    c) More than zero points were deducted from my score.
    d) More than .8 points were deducted from my score.

    There's just something about the number 1.

  28. Jonathon said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

    "So the dominant pattern is to treat data as a singular mass noun, with a minority usage treating it as a grammatically plural mass noun."

    This is rather odd, isn't it? Are there any other plural mass nouns in English? All the other pluralia tantum I can think of are count nouns.

  29. Ellen K. said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    Replying to Jonathon's comment just above.

    pair(s) of scissors
    pair(s) of pants
    pair(s) of glasses
    piece(s) of clothing

    All of these require another noun to be added if we want to specify a number. Thus, I would say, they aren't count nouns.

  30. Svafa said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

    @Coby: Not certain this is directly addressing your point, but: "there are two", "there is one", "there are five tenths". I tried to think of an example using "five tenths" as the subject, but everything I came up with I'd use the singular for both "five tenths" and "two" (or any other number for that matter).

    On subject of the original post, as a computer person, I use data as a singular mass noun similar to agenda. Unlike agenda, however, there's no plural form of data – or, well, the plural form of data is data.

  31. Eric P Smith said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

    @M.N. To some extent I accept your criticism. Indeed I have a tendency to pedanticism, and it is not my most likeable characteristic. I have Asperger Syndrome, which goes hand in hand with pedanticism, though I am not using it as an excuse. As I said before, I try to be accepting of other people's usages, and I believe I am better at that than I used to be. In my own speech and writing, however, I think it is reasonable to allow myself the luxury of using constructions that I am comfortable with. I don't think I can say fairer than that.

  32. Eric P Smith said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 4:25 pm

    @M.N. An afterthought: do you find "list of agenda" abnormal?

  33. David M said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

    I still remember when I was first told that the Russian for chips and jeans was чипсы(chipsy) and джинсы(jeansy), and when I first heard someone say бакс(bucks) to mean a single buck (though admittedly that doesn't happen too frequently) my immediate reaction was to try and "correct" the native Russians. I think my motivation, similar to what I think is the motivation driving "data are" folks, was the desire to be seen as knowledgeable and especially clued-in.

    I suppose other native speakers of English still find it normal to hear of a single graffito or a paparazzo and it would be fine for a copy-editor to correct a singular noun paparazzi, for example. I think the moral is that the goal of consistency (either with previous instances of the same word or with contemporary instances of others) should never trump the goals of clarity and artistry when they seem to conflict. The problem, I guess, is that for many of us pedantry can masquerade as artistry when our pride and desire to look smart is involved.

  34. OrenWithAnE said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

    Mark, please go to a bakery in Boston's North End and ask the shopkeep "which of these cannolis do you recommend".

  35. Chris C. said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

    This is rather odd, isn't it? Are there any other plural mass nouns in English? All the other pluralia tantum I can think of are count nouns.

    Other than media?

  36. Robert Coren said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

    @David M.: I don't think I've ever encountered anyone (other than myself) who says "graffito".

    @Coby: And when you ask for a biscotto, how does the barista react?

  37. Mark N. said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

    There also seems to be a shift in computer science towards using "data" as part of compound nouns like "data set" and "data point" whenever possible, in order to clarify what exactly is being talked about. They also have unsurprising conjugation, since set/sets and point/points are quite conventional singulars and plurals. I tend to use a bare "data" only when referring to it quite generally, as in "data was collected on" or "data has historically shown".

  38. Ken Brown said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

    I don't know about computer science, having never studied it, but I've been writing computer programs for about forty years, and been working with the things for money for about thirty, and in that context "dataset" is IBM "big iron" jargon for what nearly everyone else calls a "file". There is another usage in statistics, but I don't think its escaped the academy. In normal spoken English among programmers, "data" is a mass noun like "bread" or "money". You can have "some data" or "the data" but not "a data".

  39. Goatherd said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

    @Jonathan – someone in the other thread mentioned police and cattle as plural mass nouns.

  40. Marja Erwin said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 7:29 pm

    It depends, doesn't it?

    If it's pronounced "agenda," it's plural, if it's pronounced "adzjenda," it might be singular.

  41. Chris C. said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

    @Richard — I believe "graffito" is common in archaeology, or at least that's the context where I have encountered it most often. So that's you, and my art history professor years ago. I've only every said it to show off.

    @Ken — I'm a software engineer, and you're perfectly correct. When you want to talk about what might be called a datum, you most often say "piece of data" or something along those lines. (Not "bit", which has a specific technical meaning in this context.)

  42. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:16 pm

    I was always taught that "pants" were singular at the top and plural at the bottom.

  43. Marja Erwin said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:18 pm

    In my experience, pants and scissors are unusual because first you have a pair of pants, and then you have two pants, three pants, etc. In this case, a pair implies one set, instead of two. But with glasses first you have one pair of glasses, and then two pairs.

  44. Chris C. said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:47 pm

    Are we talking British pants or American pants?

  45. Jonathon Owen said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 11:55 pm

    @Ellen K: What's the justification for calling those mass nouns rather than count nouns? Pluralia tantum are rather odd beasts, but this doesn't make them mass nouns. And clothing at least is simply a singular mass noun. And as Marja Erwin points out, you can sometimes use quantifiers with words like pants.

    @Chris C: Media, like data, is traditionally considered a plural count noun. But I suppose if data is a plural mass noun, then media would be too.

    @Goatherd: Good examples. Thanks!

  46. Joe said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 3:14 am

    This is rather odd, isn't it? Are there any other plural mass nouns in English? All the other pluralia tantum I can think of are count nouns.

    Just to round out the discussion:

    I think most grammars of English since at least Jespersen provide a list of candidates. Some possible examples include "clothes," "brains" (in the sense of intelligence), "guts" (in the sense of courage), "greens," (in the sense of vegetables), "savings," "condolences," "humanities." You could also add "staff," "clergy," "cattle," etc. if you wanted words that don't end is -s. If memory serves, McCawley said we just have to live with the fact that plural mass nouns exist, no matter how odd we may find it.

  47. The rise of Big Datums: of course 'data' can be singular – Telegraph Blogs said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 3:33 am

    [...] a lovely piece over on Language Log, about the language "fetishism" which so often makes people, especially journalists, look stupid. Specifically, it's about this eyewateringly ugly piece of copy-editing: Yet even as big data are [...]

  48. AB said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 7:06 am

    In writing I sometimes see "a software" where I would expect "software" or "piece of software." At first I took this to be the product of non-native speakers of English, but now I am not so sure. Similarly with "a code" where I would expect just "code."

  49. Plegmund said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 8:14 am

    Without wishing to comfort the peevish, the analogy seems flawed. In the case of 'agenda' there's an intuitively singular thing, the list of agenda, which has borrowed the name of the items.

    There's no corresponding single item when we speak of 'data'. 'Data' does not name a particular kind of document.

  50. pj said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 8:34 am

    @ Mike, J.W. Brewer, M.N.

    1. a) This weighs .1 kilograms.
    b) *This weighs .1 kilogram.

    For values less than 1 in decimal, I (BrEng) would use and expect either
    a[ii]) This weighs nought point one kilograms
    (without the 'nought' it's not ok)
    or
    c) This weighs point one of a kilogram.

    Is the latter not an option for you?

  51. Brett said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 9:03 am

    @M. N. & pj: As an American speaker, I find "This weighs .1 kilogram" completely unremarkable. I would probably use the plural most of the time for cases like that, but I know I use the singular sometimes, as do other people I know. On the other hand, "This weighs point one of a kilogram," is to me completely ungrammatical. The "of" construction works with common fractions ("one tenth of a kilogram") or percentages ("ten percent of a kilogram"), but not with decimals.

  52. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    Joe: "cattle," "clergy," and "staff" can and do all function as count nouns as well as mass nouns. Perhaps in some former period it was obligatory to say "five head of cattle" or "five members of the clergy," but now you can just go with "five cattle" or "five clergy" and not be ungrammatical. (The first examples of "five staff" I googled up were UK and Irish newspaper stories in which "five staff" had been "sacked" by such-and-such company due to some scandal or other, so maybe that's less idiomatic in AmEng.) I was able to google up instances of "humanities," "brains," and "savings" in the relevant senses taking singular verbs in less than a minute each and didn't bother to check out the other examples you gave. I suppose neither Jesperson nor McCawley had the ability to do quick research-by-google to see how exceptionless their theories were likely to prove in practice.

  53. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 11:22 am

    Um, I don't mean to imply that none of those words aren't ALSO in other usages "plural mass nouns," i.e. things that function as mass nouns and take plural verb agreement etc. when doing so. Although the mass-noun sense of "cattle" may be near-obsolete. If you do a google n-gram comparison of "many cattle" against "much cattle" the latter has been losing market share pretty dramatically for the last century and a half, and a nontrivial number of recent instances of "much" are false positives because they turn out to be modern texts quoting from or allluding to the King James Version (e.g. the notoriously puzzling last verse of Jonah).

  54. Andy Averill said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

    Pant is now a perfectly common singular word in the clothing trade, and presumably elsewhere as well. "Calvin Klein's fall show included a striking pant made out of dollar bills" etc.

  55. mgh said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

    Science magazine:
    "this data" -> 864 found (some of which are "this data set")
    "these data" -> 14,220 found

  56. Chris C. said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

    @mgh — Context might be relevant. One sees "these data" in the sense of "these collections of data" from time to time, if I'm not mistaken.

    @AB — It's this usage dilemma that leads some in the press to say "software programs", which to a software professional sounds redundant, but I understand why they say it. I never hear "a code" or "codes" from software professionals, but I occasionally encounter it from others who are concerned with making software-like constructs. For instance, I play a MMORPG where players may perform musical compositions in-game. These compositions are expressed in simplified character-based notation that can trivially be converted to MIDI and other machine music formats. Players often therefore ask for "codes" for this or that piece of music, by which they mean they want the piece expressed in this notation.

  57. John Walden said,

    January 4, 2013 @ 3:45 am

    http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2013/01/03/if-you-want-to-be-a-total-pedant-write-referenda-not-referendums/

  58. John F said,

    January 4, 2013 @ 5:28 am

    So much win in this thread! It reminds me of a previous LL discussion on plurals where someone pointed out that in English, the singular of graffiti is 'tag' :D

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