August 24th, 2005
Data is or data are / pronouncing colonel / more about the vowel W
by Barbara Wallraff
J.R. Schelhass, of Livonia, Mich., writes: “‘The data show that ...’ ‘The data are not ...’ I guess these are correct, but they sound clumsy, contrived and snobbish. To me, ‘data’ is a collection of information. So a collection ‘is.’ I would appreciate your comments.”
Dear J.R.: “Data,” like “bacteria,” “criteria” and “phenomena,” is a Latin plural. But we tend to overlook this grammatical fact for a few reasons. For one, our English-tuned ears expect plurals to end in “s”: “Data” doesn’t sound plural. For another, hardly anybody ever uses the singular: When is the last time you heard someone talking about a “datum”? Nowadays people say “data point” instead. What’s more, as you point out, the word often means “a collection of information.” So a sentence like “The data is incomplete” seems natural.
Patricia Mills, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “I’m an English teacher and a stickler. One of the great mysteries in my life is this: How did the word ‘colonel’ come to be pronounced ‘kernel’?”
Dear Patricia: Don’t you find, alas, that the solutions to great mysteries are often disappointing? The answer to your question is a shaggy-dog story. In brief: We got the word in the 16th century from the French. They wrote “coronel” (or “coronnel”), and many English-speakers did too until about 1650, when it began to occur to everybody that the word is actually related to the Latin root for “column” (because the colonel led a column of soldiers), not “crown.” Around that time, too, English-speakers stopped pronouncing the word with all three syllables that we see when the word is written and gave it just two: “col-nel.” But “col-nel” is hard to say. This fact, apparently together with the memory of the earlier spelling, encouraged people to say “cor-nel,” or “kernel.”
P.S.: In last week’s column I said that “W serves as a vowel only in combination with another vowel (in particular, A, E or O).” Theron Downes, of Okemos, Mich., responded: “My dictionary and others I’ve checked include ‘cwm’ variously defined as a mountain lake, valley or cirque.” Theron: Right you are, and thanks for letting Word Court know about this unusual word, in which W is a stand-alone vowel. But what’s a cirque? My favorite dictionary, the American Heritage, which gives only that meaning for “cwm,” defines “cirque” as “a steep bowl-shaped hollow occurring at the upper end of a mountain valley, especially one forming the head of a glacier or stream.”
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.