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This note concerns a few common patterns of change in usage of plurals, namely:

  • The tendency of plural forms like criteria and panini to come to be used in the singular, sometimes with a "double plural" like paninis.
  • The tendency of plural forms like data and media to come to be used as uncountable (and thus grammatically singular).
  • The tendency of singular forms like concerto and tsunami to have alternate plural forms (concertos/concerti and tsunamis/tsunami in the present case).

Phenomena like these are studied extensively by real linguists, and this note is based largely on ideas in Steven Pinker's excellent Words and Rules (which unfortunately I don't have handy at the moment :-). As always, any errors and distortions are mine. In particular, the present draft is very rough and not particularly well argued. Though I believe that the conclusions here are essentially plausible, I'm not really expecting anyone who doesn't already agree with them to be swayed.

As I write this, there is a spirited discussion in progress concerning "descriptive" and "prescriptive" approaches in Wiktionary. I'm going to try to duck all that here by saying that I'm just trying to document what people say without pronouncing it either "correct" or "incorrect", and I can do this because this is my own User: space and not an actual Wiktionary article. So there.

The common thread in all three examples is that the terms in question were borrowed from languages with significantly different rules for plural formation. Here are the "native" singular and plural forms for the terms above, by which I mean the forms the plural would take if borrowed directly:

Singular Plural Language of Origin
criterion criteria Greek
panino panini Italian
datum data Latin
medium media Latin
concerto concerti Italian
tsunami tsunami (?) Japanese

Generally, when a noun is borrowed, it is borrowed with its original plural intact, perhaps in part because a speaker borrowing a foreign phrase feels prestigious in knowing the "correct" inflection. However, if a borrowing catches on, the great majority of speakers using the borrowed term are likely to be unaware of its origin, much less the inflections. These speakers re-analyze the term according to the information available to them.

The simplest of the cases above is the case of multiple plurals. Some users of concerto are aware that the plural in Italian is concerti, some aren't, and some may know and not care. As a general rule, and irregular form will only be maintained if there is reason to remember it. This happens in the case of common words — it's no accident that common words like be and go tend to be the least regular — and also when speakers have some non-linguistic reason to maintain a distinction.

In the case of concerto classical music buffs have reason to use the term frequently, and are also more likely to care about maintaining the distinction, perhaps for esthetic reasons, but also as part of the ubiquitous human tendency to linguistically mark membership in a social community. Such speakers will also account for a disproportionate amount of uses of concerti. The rest of the world will see a somewhat unfamiliar word and automatically apply the usual inflection rule to come up with concertos.

Pinker also lists a number of situations in which irregular forms become regular for purely linguistic reasons. This accounts for cases like flied out in the baseball sense, and also for cases like mediums in the sense of "I'd like to order two smalls, three mediums and a large." and probably for cases like "Houdini spent much of his life investigating the claims of mediums."

However, this is not the same phenomenon as is seen in "Please be sure the media is formatted." and "The media has a hidden agenda." In these cases, the borrowed word was originally used in its grammatically plural sense (plural of storage medium and news medium respectively). As such a term moves from specialized to popular use, the only means of keeping the irregular form alive is constant repetition in clearly plural contexts. [hmm . . . singular "means" is an intersting case itself]

In English, this will only occur in the nominative and even then not always. That is, "The media are biased." is clearly plural, but "the bias of the media" or even "The media may be biased." could be either singular or plural.

In cases like "media" and "data" there is also a plausible alternate interpretation: the unfamiliar term is a mass noun. Thus storage media becomes a notional material that holds bits, and news media becomes a notional grouping like crowd or congregation which (in American usage, at least) is treated as grammatically singular. Or the media may become some sort of depersonalized information-carrying conduit.

In either case, it becomes easy to interpret please format the media. the bias of the media and the media may be biased as referring to a mass noun, and ignore the occasional the media are biased as anomalous or even as an invariant form. If this analysis is correct, we should expect to see more such usages for nouns that may act as mass nouns. Another example would be graffiti. Archeologists will note an individual graffito, but civic leaders are generally concerned with the scourge of graffiti.

It probably also helps if the singular is rarely if ever seen. When does one speak of a single spaghetto? This would account for the various kinds of pasta, which are almost invariably plural in Italian and mass nouns in English:

Singular Plural
spaghetto spaghetti
penna penne
lasagna lasagne

Now what about criteria, phenomena, biscotti and panini?

In all these cases, there is no obvious singular form, nor is any of them plausibly a mass noun. One hears There are three criteria for admission. or These phenomena are hard to explain. or Panini or Biscotti at the top of a menu section. I suspect that in these cases the foreign term is liable to be analyzed as invariant — the plural form is taken as both singular and plural. Even when the proper singular is seen (The new point guard was a real phenomenon in high school) it may be interpreted as an independent borrowing of a presumably related term, and not as the singular.

Alternatively, speakers may differ as to whether they recognize the irregular singular, leading to the mirror image of the concerto/concerti case: some recognize phenomenon as the singular, some take phenomena as invariant.

In the case of biscotti and panini, mass market chains have for whatever reason seen fit to use the invariant form. I've never seen biscotto or panino used outside Italy. Whether the word is taken as invariant or is given a regularized "double plural" is probably a matter of how often the plural is seen. I'm pretty sure I've heard both "two biscotti" and "two biscottis", but I suspect that biscottis will win.

There may be a common thread in all these cases beyond foreign borrowing, namely the tendency to treat an unfamiliar irregular noun as invariant. This would explain usages like a graffiti, which gets about 20 times the google hits that a graffito gets, as well as explaining singular criteria etc. Cases like media and data can be interpreted either as invariants or mass nouns, or possibly both.