There are always two schools. [2]

A Grammatical Conundrum (PHD Comics, 7 August 2015)

George Cham is once again spot-on. Whether the word data is to be considered singular or plural is indeed a philosophical question, which is why many react as if they were rubbed the wrong way when they run into the opposite camp. Oh, and I am no exception.

As far as I am concerned, my instinct always told me to go for singular verbs (but not for the reason that Cham presented in the latest episode), but had to fight it hard because my grammatically pedantic self then kept chiming in and reminding – so annoyingly – that there is also the word datum. The same battle goes on with agenda and media.

At least in the case of ‘data’, my mind was finally at peace after I read the following two articles.

  • Data is a singular noun. (Norman Gray, 2005)
  • Data are or data is? (Simon Rogers, The Guardian Datablog, 8 July 2012)

My GLEE colleague Nazlin has made a brilliant observation that “[…] suddenly the SSRC starts using the plural. Strange thing is that we’ve had ‘data is’ all these years and it’s only since data management became an issue (with ‘Big Science’) that the plural form started to be used.”

Aaah, big data. I am impressed by what they can do, and I have been involved in projects that are based on large data sets myself, but my problem is that deep down I can’t be satisfied until I feel I know my data inside out. A romanticised idea, I am aware, and movie scenes like this one from Erin Brockovich make it worse. 🙂

My such attitude manifested itself again recently when I was drafting a report of the results of a student survey. Not the NSS, but there is another one specifically designed by the HEA for postgraduate research students (called PRES) and I have always been involved in seeing it through at my institution.

Following the release of the results of the NSS, there was an article in the Guardian that invited a debate over the point of the costly exercise. Provocatively titled ‘The National Student Survey should be abolished before it does any more harm‘,  the article argues that “Just as high IQ scores tell us more about a person’s ability to pass IQ tests than they do about their intelligence, so the high NSS results tell us more about the sector’s ability to perform well in satisfaction surveys than the quality of what happens within universities”.

I am not sure what happens to the qualitative data generated from the NSS. When it comes to the latest PRES on our end, there were hundreds of comments, and I carefully read and engaged with every single one and used my best research power to present them fairly in the report. Some of the concerns raised might be difficult to resolve in the short run, but I can assure the participants that no voice went unheard or got lost in aggregation. I can tell them that much.


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