Tension punctuated a House hearing last week over how long law enforcement agencies can keep on file data gleaned from automated license plate readers — a debate, three years in the making, that has lawmakers still searching for compromise.
But most of the House Civil Law committee did find common ground on an amendment by Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, on an issue he was clearly passionate about — grammar.
Lesch’s proposed amendment zeroed in on the several lines of Rep. Peggy Scott’s bill that referred to data as plural — as in “Automated license plate reader data are private.” Lesch argued that data is a collective noun that requires the singular form — as in “Automated license plate reader data is private.”
“Unless we want to start saying ‘The water in this building are safe to drink’ or ‘The money in your wallet are gone,’ we should be consistent and change ‘are’ to ‘is.’ ” Lesch told a bemused committee.
Much like the maligned and beloved Oxford comma, collective nouns have differing schools of thought on how they should be referenced. A guide by the Economist says there is no hard and fast rule but says to avoid giving all singular collective nouns singular verbs. For instance, “ ‘The couple are now living apart is preferable’ to ‘The couple is now living apart,’ ” the guide says.
But when it comes to entities such “media” and, of course, “data,” the Economist declares them to be plural — which would lead some to the conclusion that Scott’s original language was correct. But Kathleen Wolf Davis, editor of Intelligent Utility magazine, is as passionate as Lesch, succinctly arguing that “Data is.”
“The final nail in the coffin for me on the data grammar debate is this: Like all collective nouns, you can’t really use the singular in the same form you use the plural,” Wolf wrote in December. “For irregular plurals [sheep, moose, fish], the singular and plural are the same word. Data is not an irregular plural.”
It was the same line of reasoning Lesch used last week when calling for the amendment, citing recent statutes that refer to data as both singular and plural.
“It is not consistent because there has been a plot afoot for the last 10 years to change everything to ‘are.’ ” Lesch said, half in jest. If you look at statutes before that, unless they’ve been messed with by people, they all say ‘is,’ so I’m interested in the traditional way, Madam Chair. And by plot, I mean conspiracy.”
Legislative analyst Matt Gehring and fellow committee member Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, did their own research and found it appeared that both, technically, worked.
“There has been a trend to go toward ‘data are,’ recently, but I’ll defer to the committee on how they’d like to go forward.” Gehring said.
A pragmatic Scott said, “I guess I don’t have a problem with it,” adding that the revisor could always make a change if need be.
Lesch’s amendment passed unanimously. “Data are” became “Data is.”
Silently, Lesch raised a fist in the air, victorious, and the hearing continued.