The Grammarphobia Blog

Sylvester Stallone’s mama

Q: Sometimes I see graffiti that adds to, or comments on, an actual sign. For example, someone once scribbled the following over the name “Yo-Yo Ma” on a sign at Lincoln Center: “How Sylvester Stallone summons his mother.”

A: I never saw the sign you mention, but I did read about it some years ago in the “Metropolitan Diary” column in the New York Times.

Speaking of Yo-Yo Ma, I was just listening to his recording of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Which reminds me of a joke I’ve seen online.

In one version, Steven Spielberg is making a movie about famous composers. He asks Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger which composers they want to portray. Stallone chooses Mozart and Schwarzenegger says, “I’ll be Bach.”

Seriously, your comment raises an interesting question about English usage: Is “graffiti” singular (as you used it) or plural?

The word comes from Italian, of course, where the singular is “graffito” and the plural is “graffiti.” And that’s the way it was when the word entered English in the mid-19th century, though it was primarily used in the plural.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1852 book on archeology that describes Viking inscriptions in Scotland as forms “of what, it must be remembered, are mere graffiti.”

The first published reference in the OED for “graffiti” used as a singular noun comes from a May 28, 1967, article in the Chicago Tribune: “Graffiti was written in San Francisco, Berkeley … and Montreal.”

So what’s the scoop on “graffiti” today?

The main entry for the word in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) is entitled “graffito,” but a usage note says “graffiti is far more common than the singular form graffito and is mainly used as a singular noun in much the same way data is.”

Although the singular “graffito” is etymologically correct, American Heritage says, it “might strike some readers as pedantic outside an archaeological context.”

The dictionary goes on to say that there’s “no substitute for the singular use of graffiti when the word is used as a mass noun to refer to inscriptions in general.” It gives this example: “Graffiti is a major problem for the Transit Authority.”

Over the years, many foreign plurals have been Anglicized as singulars in English: “agenda,” “erotica,” “insignia,” “opera,” “stamina,” “trivia,” etc.

It’s time to admit that “graffiti” has joined other Italian plurals that now take singular verbs in English: “zucchini,” “fettuccine,” “spaghetti,” and so on.

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