Category Archives: Style

Is Data Plural?

Is data plural? Well, it started out that way. Data is the plural form of the Latin word datum, meaning “something given.” English adopted the word in the mid-1600s and kept the Latin construction, at least until recently. Nowadays, usage guides approve treating data as a collective noun, in the manner of information or money, and using a singular verb.

How should you use it? That depends on what you’re writing.

In formal and scientific writing, you should use a plural verb with the word data:

The polling data show the voters are still undecided.
The data indicate unemployment is still high.
What do the data say?

In informal contexts, you can use a singular verb:

The polling data shows the voters are still undecided.
The data indicates unemployment is still high.
What does the data say?

According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “Both constructions are standard.” But deciding the level of formality you want to use can be tricky. If you treat data as plural, you risk sounding stuffy, but if you treat it as singular, you risk sounding undereducated.

Just accept that no matter which usage you pick, it’s going to sound wrong to at least a few people. So carefully consider your audience and pick the style that you think will sound correct to most of your readers.

And most importantly, be consistent with the way you use data. Make a conscious decision to treat it as plural or singular, and use it the same way every time.

Still having trouble deciding? You can avoid this dilemma altogether by rewriting the sentence so data isn’t the subject:

According to the polling data, the voters are still undecided.
Unemployment is still high, as indicated by new data.
What conclusions can we draw from the data?

On a related note, datum is rarely used anywhere outside of scientific journals. If you want to talk about a single unit of data, use the more familiar term datapoint.

Easy Rules for Capitalizing Titles: 4 Alternative Title Styles

Think back to your high school English classes. You were probably taught that the proper way to write titles is to capitalize the first, last, and all major words. But what qualifies as a major word? The two style guides that recommend this structure don’t quite agree.

The MLA Style Manual—which is used in scholarly publishing—says to lowercase all articles (a, an, the); prepositions (against, as, between, in, of, to); coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet); and the to in infinitives (The Courage to Be).

The Chicago Manual of Style—which is used in book publishing—makes it more complicated. The guide agrees with the MLA about articles and the to in infinitives, but it says to capitalize propositions when they’re being used adverbially or adjectivally (Look Up, the On Button). And it only recommends lowercasing the conjunctions and, but, for, or, and nor.

So the correct title capitalization will vary slightly, depending on which of these styles you’re using:

MLA: The Neighbors Came over and Complained about the Loud Music, so We Turned down the Volume

Chicago: The Neighbors Came Over and Complained about the Loud Music, So We Turned Down the Volume

Ugh. I’ll just say it: No one apart from an editor who specializes in one of these styles wants to waste time trying to figure out these rules. Even if you have all the parts of speech memorized—and that’s a big if—are you going to sit around pondering whether a preposition is being used adverbially? Of course not. You have better things to do.

Here’s the good news: There are other rules about capitalizing titles, and they’re a lot easier to follow. If you’re thinking about how to capitalize titles on your website (or report or presentation), here are a few different options you should consider:

1) You could use sentence-style capitalization
This is the format currently favored by the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, which makes headline capitalization much simpler than the other style guides do: “Only the first word and proper nouns are capitalized.” , one of many newspapers that follow AP style, has numerous examples of sentence-case headlines.

2) You Could Capitalize Every Word In The Title
Many primarily online publications, such as and , favor this style. It looks more formal than sentence case, but it’s just as easy to do.

This style works great for short titles, such as the navigation bar and page headers of a website (e.g., this website). But use this style carefully; if you have a lot of titles on a page, using all caps will make visitors think you’re shouting at them.

4) you could make the title lowercase
Some youth-oriented companies, such as , lowercase every word in the title, proper nouns and all. This style is an affectation, so if you’re going to use it, you need to think about your audience: Older people will hate it, and younger people may find it patronizing. You’re running a real risk of coming off like the dad who tries to use modern slang to show his teenager that he’s cool. Use with caution.

Very close observers may notice that I don’t follow my own advice when I write blog headlines. Why? Mostly because many clients expect me to use a more traditional headline style, and I want to show that I know how. And also because I actually like figuring out what part of speech a word is. But you don’t have to be like me! Save yourself time and effort by using one of these easier title styles.

Twice a Month: Biweekly or Bimonthly?

I created a recurring reminder in my iPhone the other day, and I set it to repeat Every 2 Weeks. The calendar app shortened it to Biweekly, and I thought, Wait, is that right? Which word means twice a month: biweekly or bimonthly?

It turns out I’m not the only person who has trouble with this distinction. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “Many people are puzzled about bimonthly and biweekly, which are often ambiguous because they are formed from both senses [‘every two’ and ‘two times’] of bi-. This ambiguity has been in existence for nearly a century and a half and cannot be eliminated by the dictionary.”

Okay, if the dictionary can’t solve it, what are we supposed to do? Some usage guides suggest using bi- to mean “every other” and semi- to mean “twice a.” This technique works fairly well for weeks and months, but it falls apart at years.

Semiweekly Twice a week
Biweekly Every other week
Semimonthly* Twice a month
Bimonthly Every other month
Biannually Twice a year
Biennially Every other year

*What’s the difference between biweekly and semimonthly? This comes up most often with payroll. A company that issues paychecks every other Friday pays biweekly, and a company that issues paychecks on the first and fifteenth pays semimonthly.

Even if you follow this usage guide exactly, you face a problem: Your audience probably doesn’t know these distinctions. As Merriam-Webster points out, “The chief difficulty is that many users of these words assume that others know exactly what they mean, and they do not bother to make their context clear.”

Your best bet, then, is to skip these words altogether and just use the phrases in the right-hand column (“twice a month,” “every other year,” etc.). Everyone will understand what you mean—including you.