Etymology Usage

Biscotto, biscotti, and biscottis

Q: “Panini” and “biscotti” are plurals in Italian, but I often hear them as singulars in English. When words like these are relatively recent additions to English, what are the proper singulars and plurals?

A: As of this writing, “biscotto” and “panino” are the singular forms; “biscotti” and “panini” are the plurals.

So say both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

But stay tuned. We wouldn’t be surprised if “biscotto” and “panino” went the way of “graffito.”

Why? Because more and more people are treating the plural forms as singular and using them with singular verbs.

When Pat is in New York for her monthly WNYC broadcasts, she regularly has lunch at an Italian kiosk in Grand Central Station. The lunch counter serves both panini and biscotti. But customers generally ask for “a panini” or “a biscotti.” 

When a foreign word sneaks into English, it becomes an English word and acquires a life of its own. The word may keep some or all of its foreign flavor, at least for a while, but it may not.

Many foreign words adopted into English have lost the plural inflections they had in their parent languages.

Spaghetti, for instance, is a plural in Italian, but we don’t say, “These spaghetti are delicious.” Similarly, Italian plurals like zucchini and fettuccine are treated as singulars in English.

The word “graffiti,” too, comes from an Italian plural but it’s more commonly used as a singular in English. More people say “graffiti is” than “graffiti are.” We had a blog entry about graffiti a couple of years ago.

Furthermore, once new words are adopted they generally form their plurals in the usual English way.

For example, when you and a friend both want a cappuccino, you don’t tell the barista at Starbucks that you want “two cappuccini.” You ask for “two cappuccinos.”

That’s why we hear people speak of “biscottis” and “paninis”—hence re-pluralizing those originally plural words.

You ask about “proper” usage. The process of Anglicization doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all.

As we often say, English is a work in progress, and common usage is what influences lexicographers to update their dictionary entries generation after generation.

So until things sort themselves out, you can’t do better than to consult the most recent dictionaries. And, as we say, stay tuned.

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