Monday, April 4, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: Data to Dialog(ue)

An ongoing, alphabetical list of things that make this editor cringe. Read the inroduction here.

This week, I discovered that a large number of things that start with D annoy me, so I am forced to break the list in half. Don't worry, you'll get the other half soon!


This bothers some people a lot more than it bothers me. Data is supposed to be the plural of datum, just like curricula/curriculum and addenda/addendum. For example, the number of Smurfs I stomped today is a datum; the names and ages of the Smurfs who met their end from my fickle foot of flatness in the last year is data.

In general writing, though, data has become both singular and plural. It makes sense, too. If you’re writing about the Semi-Annual Death Questionnaire of the Department for Smurf Safety and Superbluity, it's singular. You don’t want to have to write that out every time, and the initialism (SASQDSSS in its untranslated form) is just too clunky, so you might just refer to it as “the data.” You’re still referring to that single set of information, so it seems logical to go with a singular verb.

I’m sure there are plenty of purists out there ready to argue with me about this. Before you start typing away, though, consider this: opera is technically the plural of opus. What is Wagner famous for that doesn’t involve infidelity or Nazis? Put that in Papa Smurf’s pipe and smoke it.

Notice, though, that I conditioned my previous pronouncements with “in general writing.” If you’re a demographer, statistician, or other scientific researcher, you are expected to know that data is plural, and to use the “proper” verb. In that case, just forget that datum even exists and always use a plural verb.

The real peeve here, though, is pronunciation. Like most Trekkers, I prefer the pronunciation used for the name of Brent Spiner’s character — “DAY-tuh” — but I really don’t care if you pronounce it “DAA-tuh.” What I hate is when people pronounce data one way but then pronounce the first two syllables of database the other. Make up your mind already!


Why is it that people who have no problem talking about dictionary definitions; who wax poetic about infinite space, infinite love, and infinite stupidity; and who understand that their checking accounts hold a finite amount of money can continue to blithely write and type definately instead of the correct definitely? (Notice how all those italicized words are related through that finit in the middle, from the Latin finire meaning “to limit.”)

My hunch is that it has to do with pronunciation. To my Midwest ears, that third vowel sound comes out sounding like a schwa instead of some form of i: “DEH-fih-nuht-lee.” And since any vowel can, at some time, lead to the schwa sound (champion, umbrella, effigy, leavened), people just pick the first one. Though I have no data to back up this hunch, it would explain why there are so many definatelys and so few definetelys, definotelys, and definutelys.

Or maybe people are just uncomfortable having so many is in a row. (Note to self, or to anyone else interested in such things: How often does verisimilitude get misspelled?)

Regardless, it’s definitely spelled D-E-F-I-N-I-T-E-L-Y. Need a mnemonic to help you remember how to spell definitely? The answer is in the question: How do you spell it?

Defuse vs. Diffuse

Bad: “It may be necessary to repeatedly acknowledge the customer emotion to diffuse the situation and reassure the customer . . .” (How to Respond to Angry Customers)

Bad: eHow offers How to Diffuse Someone that is Yelling at You, a double-whammy: should be “defuse someone who” instead of “diffuse someone that.”

Bad: “Set up your umbrellas so that they allow you to defuse the light to create a softer appearance.” (How to Use Umbrellas in Professional Photography, again from eHow.)

To keep a (literal or metaphorical) bomb from exploding, you defuse it — you take out or otherwise render useless the bomb’s fuse.

Diffuse means, as a verb, “to scatter widely,” and as an adjective, “scattered widely.” If you look up right now, you might see a diffuser — a translucent cover — over the lights. That diffuser spreads the light over a wider area, lighting up the entire office, room, or workspace instead of acting as a headache-inducing spotlight.

If you yell “Bomb!” in a crowded public place, diffuse describes what the people do: they scatter in all directions away from you. When the bomb squad arrives, they will try to defuse the bomb. Later, you will attempt to defuse a stressful situation by explaining to the judge that you yelled "Bomb!" to prove an editorial point.


Peeve 1

For a time, I proofread (and later copy edited) general-reference how-to books about tech topics. I’ve had my fill of Windows, Microsoft Office, and other computer applications, utilities, and operating systems. One of the first things I had to learn in that position was that those little pop-up windows that every program uses — whether to let you name a file you want to save, adjust a default setting, or verify that you do indeed want to reformat that hard drive — are called dialog boxes.

Yes, I lamented the loss of those two silent vowels at the end of dialogue, but I was powerless against the might of our house style guide. I had to either accept it or go back to working retail. I’d rather pull out my own fingernails than work retail, so I’ve accepted dialog boxes as a part of my life.

But here I implore you to help me save this word dialogue. Let’s leave dialogs to computers and retain dialogues for people, whether real or fictional. Don’t let dialogue suffer the same fate as catalogue!

A side note: Some people have noticed that a monologue is a speech given by a single person, and that the “oneness” of a monologue is indicated by the prefix mono-. This is correct. Some have then taken a look at dialogue and decided that the di- at the beginning must be a prefix meaning “two” — as it is in dilemma, diode, and dihydrogen monoxide — which leads to the argument that a dialogue must necessarily take place between exactly two people. This is incorrect for one simple reason: that unaccounted-for a.

The prefix in dialogue is dia-, meaning "across." The prefix is shared by words like diaspora, diameter, and diaphragm.

Peeve 2

I am (literally) literally on my knees as I type this: Please please please do not use dialogue as a verb. It’s a noun, and it ought to stay that way. “Dialoguing” ranks right up there with “interfacing” and “incentivizing” as a way to get people to stop listening to you.

Although it’s okay to “have a dialogue” with someone, most people would prefer to talk, discuss, speak, or even converse instead.

I’m talking to you, business-jargonizers!

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion tomorrow morning!