From Wendy Quinones:
I'm interested that you say the apostrophe in
fox's takes the place of the "e". I'd always thought the earlier possessives took the form of "the fox his beautiful tail."
And you were not
alone. This belief, though erroneous was quite widespread.
So what is the correct singular of
data? Is there one?
Technically, datum is the singular,
but these days very few people speak of a single piece of data, so it's
not heard very often.
From 'beth Hayes:
Just a quick comment on Ian's article. A few years ago I was touring a
bookshop sale rack and saw a book that was probably about misused words.
Various writers were asked whether data is/are singular or plural. I remember reading responses from Isaac Asimov and Richard Lederer, but there
were many others offering answers and reasons.
Have you ever heard of this book? I think of it every time I read this
argument about data and regret not buying it at the time.
By the way, thanks for the explanation of the apostrophe. Mine replaces the
'Mary Eliza' part of my name and was adopted in art school because it was
easier to sign on multiple copies of small etchings.
We asked Richard Lederer and he replied:
Almost certainly the book you have in mind
is Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, with a panel from Isaac Asimov to William Zinsser --
but not Richard Lederer. On data are/is, the panel was completely split.
Hmm, well, you should have
been on the panel, Mr. Lederer!
From Laura Osborn:
I have always had trouble spelling the word
necessary. In fact, I just had to look it up in order to send you this message!!! I'm never sure if the
the S comes first. Once I figure that out, I have to decide whether there are two
Cs or two Ss!
Thanks for a great site.
From David Helm:
Itís been close to thirty years ago now, but the word I missed in my last Spelling Bee in grade school is one I would nominate as one of the
worst ó "accommodate". The combination of double Cs and
Ms, and a single D makes it confusing. In Eighth Grade, I think I forgot the second
M, since then I
invariably double the D and/or leave out the second C or M.
fuchsia or mnemonic anytime!
From Georg Trimborn:
I always thought that 'Boxing Day' was the first
work day after
Christmas (normally the 26th, but not always). In any event, if I'm right, then bankers couldn't be given 'Boxing Day' as a holiday, since
then it would no longer be a working day - a nice paradox!
As always, "Thanks, and keep up the good work!"
Well, if we are going to be
utterly pedantic (and if we don't who will?), then Boxing Day is the first
weekday after Christmas.
From Mike Lee:
[Regarding the font problems at TOWFI] If you hold down the control key and roll the scroll wheel on your mouse,
you get the same effect as going to Internet Explorer and clicking View->Text Size and selecting a larger or smaller font size.
If you change your font size to read different web pages, you often forget
to change it back.
When TOWFI is read in the smallest font, you get the problem where the o and
a can be mistaken for each other. Nevertheless, I enjoy the font you've
Great web site, Mel & Mike! Love your material.
From Brad Daniels:
If the people experiencing the font size problems are using Internet Explorer, they can get the proper font size by
going to the "View->Text Size" menu, and selecting "medium". A setting of "smaller" or "smallest" will produce the
effect they describe.
Thanks, guys! We've
since received several more messages on this topic and we will publish
those containing new information next issue.
From Jean Jacobi:
Having never encountered the color name "Isabella", I really thought you were taking your readers for a ride with the story of its derivation. My
dictionary didn't list it, but then it's not the OED. I did a little searching on the Web and found the term in several places, describing the color of
horses, dogs and Elizabethan costume. The following site (http://www.st-mike.org/lizcolor.html) claims that it was documented as a color name in a
volume called "Elizabethan Costumes from 1550 - 1580", which would place it before Isabella the Infanta's distasteful underwear episode. Any
thoughts on that?
From Jan D. Hodge:
Your story of the origin of the color name "isabella" is, well, delicious.
Unfortunately, it is specifically refuted by the OED:
Various stories have been put forth to account for the name. That . . . associating it with the archduchess Isabella and the siege of Ostend 1601-1604 is shown by our first quotation to be
The word appeared in an inventory of Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe ["Item, one
rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten, . . . set with silver spangles."] in
July 1600, before said siege began. Likely, the story was a delightful instance of etymological imagination derived from the color, rather than vice
Doh, busted! Yes,
further research shows that you are indeed correct, Jan.
our defense we can only point out that we introduced the discussion on isabella
with the [weasel] words "It is said to derive..."
From Dan Tilque:
About your use of the word
metonym in issue 135. To quote Inigo
Montoya, I don' think that word means what you think it means.
Inigo also said, "You
father. Prepare to die." That's how we felt (as though we
should prepare to die!) when we caught that brain fart (or "senior
moment" or whatever you'd like to call it) in last week's
issue. We know what metonym means. The word we
intended, (and which Dan mentioned later in his message) was eponym.
By the way, don't bother
checking - we've changed it.
From Sam Bankester:
Just a humble thank you to those who correctly corrected my careless case confusion in Issue 135's Sez You.
Chin up, Sam! We all make mistakes!
(See previous letter.)
From Richard R.
I wonder if your curmudgeons, guest or regular, who
object to the mass noun "data" also feel nauseous about "a pea"? (Linguistically, that is: their
culinary opinions are not the issue.) If not, why not? Why is the change of
"data" from a counting noun
to a mass noun a cause for distress while the change of the mass noun "pease" to the counting noun
just peachy? I would guess that the answer is that the latter change occurred centuries ago while the
former is recent. Why this makes the one good and the other bad is left as an exercise for the student.
The irony is that the change with
"data" isnít really
a linguistic change at all. It is a change in how information is perceived in our society. Where once
we thought of discrete pieces of information, we are now inundated with huge quantities and perceive it as
a mass of information. Just as we can speak of grains of sand when the need arises we can speak of
individual data points or facts, but the data itself is, like sand, seen as an uncounted mass. What some
people see as a change in the language is only so in a superficial sense. Once the perception of data
shifted the grammatical form shifted with it in a strictly regular fashion. It is absurd to insist that
we retain the older form because there was once a time when it correctly matched perception. Even in the
transitional period this is perfectly regular: if John perceives data as individual pieces of
information he should use "data" as a counting noun; if Susie perceives data as a mass then she should use
"data" as a mass noun. They should say what they mean. Those who complain about Susieís usage are
implicitly asserting that she should have said what they believe she should have meant, an assertion which
is at once absurd and offensive. Of course one can also discuss whether the altered perception is a Good
Thing or a Bad Thing, but that is only indirectly a linguistic issue. To discuss the linguistic aspect in
isolation is to mistake the effect for the cause.
The shift from mass "pease" to counted
"peas" was, on
the other hand, simply a misinterpretation of the final consonant as a grammatical suffix. Anyone
wishing to complain about grammatical ignorance has a much stronger case here. Good luck on convincing
people to change!
People get up in arms about incorrect usage
today, no matter how prevalent, because the usage is still
considered incorrect, and many folks don't like having incorrect usage
forced on them by the "ignorant" masses. You can
tell them over and over that it's "the evolution of language",
and you can cite examples like "pease" to "peas" until
you are crimson of visage, yet they will not sway from their
position. Something like the pease to peas error became entrenched
long ago. No one today was alive when pease erroneously became
peas. However, many today were alive when data were data and a
was a datum, and so the incorrect usage hits them more profoundly.
There will always be at least two camps on this
issue. Those who prefer to use data as a plural noun will do so, and
those who prefer to use data as a singular collective noun will do so, all
until one eventually disappears (or mostly disappears). And we all
know which one will win.
We've received quite a
few letters since our last issue, and we'll try to get them all published
here next issue. We're fine, by the way. The hiatus was due to
Melanie being out of town in September on business. We will be on
holiday next week, so no new issue until the week of October 14.
Thank you for your patience!