The ‘is’ vs ‘are’ debate

Posted on 9th November 2020 by Becky McArdle

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I was recently getting stuck into my new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (some light lockdown reading, I know) when I noticed something interesting. The word ‘data’ was consistently written as a plural – the data are as opposed to the data is – something that I had never seen before. I spoke to Skout MD, Rob, the following day to see what his take on it was. After some quick googling we found that ‘data’ is in fact, technically a plural, however it is an example of one of those words that has been distorted by vernacular language.

It seems this has caused controversy among some writers, debating whether ‘data’ should be considered a countable or uncountable noun. This led to a further discussion about plurals that are often written as singulars. A classic example is the name of a corporation and whether it should be classed as a single entity or a group of people. The logical explanation is that there is only one Skout and therefore is it a singular. However, that doesn’t always roll off the tongue so easily. For example, Skout are expanding their client base sounds correct but of course it should be written as Skout is expanding its client base. It’s amazing how frequently we see this grammatical error when working in B2B PR!

Another tricky example is the word ‘staff’, which refers to a group of people. The confusion here is that although the word ‘staff’ is a collective noun, it can act as a singular unit. This would mean that instead of writing the staff are very efficient, it should be written as, the staff is very efficient. Confusing, right?

During discussions on this topic, a friend of mine sent me a photo of a promotion at retail chain Dunelm that stated, “there’s more rugs, colours and sizes”. This is grammatically incorrect but the abbreviation of ‘there is’ seems to let them get away with it. We know that grammatically speaking the sign should say “There are more rugs, colours and sizes” but maybe that sounded too wordy to the marketing team. Incorrect grammar is all around us and even well-known brand names get it wrong!

The ‘is vs are’ debate seems to be a grey area in general. ‘Is’ may be the grammatically correct term to describe a business but saying it out loud or writing it down often just feels wrong. But what is comfortable for one person, may be infuriating to another! I spoke to a university professor, who informed me that the ‘data’ discussion is a constant area of frustration among the scientific community. Apparently, it is a common mistake and professors find themselves regularly correcting their students for writing the data is instead of the data are. In fact, datum is the correct singular…although the word is hardly ever used!

It’s easy to open a can of worms with these discussions and everyone has their own view on what is right. Re-training yourself to use correct grammar when you are used to saying something differently is an especially hard habit to break. But it is something to be mindful of – anyone remember Alan Partridge and his friend’s driving “Lexi”?



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