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Was the usage "Spaghetti were" ever acceptable or common?

[Following up from, but not a duplicate of, this question by another user, which was unresolved…]

Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence contains an unusual (perhaps even unique) usage of English that I'm hoping some native speaker can shed light on. Here is the sentence in bold, with some surrounding sentences for context. Dirk Stroeve has previously been described as "a painter, but a very bad one". The narrator says:

In the evenings I went to see my friends. I looked in often on the Stroeves, and sometimes shared their modest fare. Dirk Stroeve flattered himself on his skill in cooking Italian dishes, and I confess that his spaghetti were very much better than his pictures. It was a dinner for a King when he brought in a huge dish of it, succulent with tomatoes, and we ate it together with the good household bread and a bottle of red wine. I grew more intimate with Blanche Stroeve…

Since spaghetti is (almost?) always used in English in the singular as an uncountable (mass) noun, this is unusual. What is the right interpretation of this sentence?

  1. "His spaghetti" is parallel to "his omelettes". That is, it refers to the many occasions he cooked spaghetti, and means something like "his spaghetti dishes were better than his pictures". (The OED entry for 'spaghetti' has "1. a. A variety of pasta made in long thin strings. Occas., a dish of spaghetti.")

  2. As in the original Italian usage, "spaghetti" in the plural here refers to multiple strands of spaghetti or pieces of spaghetti.

  3. Something else.

(I am partial to (1.) myself, but this interpretation was described by another user as "unlikely" and "completely absurd", so I'm trying to know for sure.)

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marked as duplicate by z7sg Ѫ, FumbleFingers, waiwai933 Aug 17 '11 at 4:20

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

4  
It's just silly to duplicate another question like this. –  delete Aug 14 '10 at 7:44
    
It seems that English imports the plural of Italian words, and then uses them as singular words; apart for spaghetti, that is what happens with salami, and zucchini. –  kiamlaluno Apr 6 '11 at 5:46
    
This question might find better answers on the Literature Stack Exchange. –  hippietrail Dec 6 '11 at 9:28
1  
If you actually read the question, you'll see that this is not a duplicate. –  Marthaª Jan 4 '13 at 18:46

5 Answers 5

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Maugham answers the question himself in his next sentence. He means the first alternative: his spaghetti dishes were much better than his pictures. Consider the full passage:

Dirk Stroeve flattered himself on his skill in cooking Italian dishes, and I confess that his spaghetti were very much better than his pictures. It was a dinner for a King when he brought in a huge dish of it, succulent with tomatoes, and we ate it together with the good household bread and a bottle of red wine.

If Maugham had meant strands of spaghetti, he would have said "and we ate them together ...."

Consider the following passage, where I have replaced spaghetti with soup.

Dirk Stroeve flattered himself on his skill in cooking liquid dishes, and I confess that his soups were very much better than his pictures. It was a dinner for a King when he brought in a huge bowl of it, succulent with tomatoes, and we ate it together with the good household bread and a bottle of red wine.

It makes perfect sense for the first occurrence to be soups were and then to use the pronoun it to refer back to soup. Maugham is using spaghetti as the plural of spaghetti, which I think is quite natural, although I suspect that spaghettis is the more common plural.

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Agreed "spaghettis" is a reasonable plural for English speakers nowadays. I think Maugham would almost certainly use that if he were writing today. But as @Fraser Orr says, it was written a long time ago. –  FumbleFingers Aug 15 '11 at 16:03
    
I've marked this answer as accepted — it seems the natural interpretation to me, but of course I said that already in the question and so I'm biased. :-) But Pekka's answer of "I'm pretty sure it's number two" has more upvotes, so I really don't know what the others' line of thinking is. –  ShreevatsaR Sep 10 '11 at 7:24

I think it is highly unlikely that either 1 or 2 is correct. I think Maugham has made an uncommon[1] choice to make spaghetti plural. Or if you think the speaker is expressing an opinion, he could be using the subjunctive.

[1] COCA & BNC searches yield no such usage.

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But what you say actually corresponds to answer (2). –  delete Aug 14 '10 at 7:36
    
I don't agree that it refers to multiple strands of spaghetti. So... not answer (2). I think it assumes a plural of spaghetti. Answer (2) assumes a plural of 'strand', not of 'spaghetti'. I think Maugham really means to use a plural of spaghetti and nothing else. Not dishes, not strands, not pieces. –  Chris Aug 14 '10 at 19:15
    
So what do you think spaghetti in the plural means here? (In Italian spaghetti just means the strands/pieces — see link — but you seem to be saying that here it's plural but still is a mass noun?) –  ShreevatsaR Aug 14 '10 at 23:57
    
I mean it like many people do when they say "Manchester United are playing well today!". To me Manchester United is a (1,singular) team, but in BrE it is completely normal to refer use 'team' as a plural. –  Chris Aug 15 '10 at 11:12

I'm pretty sure it's number two. After all, Spaghetti is an italian plural, no matter what us italian-cuisine-importing countries make of it :)

A similar case is Zucchini. It is the plural form of La Zucchina.

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Yes, it's an Italian plural, but I can find no other example of plural usage in English, though. –  ShreevatsaR Aug 14 '10 at 8:45
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In English spaghetti is not plural. And the subsequent sentences in the paragraph don't use it plurally. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 18 '10 at 16:43
    
Yes sphagetti is plural there (the "were" gives it away), but are you saying that "his spaghetti were very much better than his pictures" means that "his strands of spaghetti were very much better than his pictures"? –  ShreevatsaR Aug 15 '11 at 4:06

I find it difficult to extract a precise meaning from the sentence, assuming that was is written is written correctly.

his spaghetti were (plural)

brought in a huge dish of it (singular)

we ate it (singular)

To me the sentence's meaning only works as

I confess that his spaghetti was very much better than his pictures.

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I don't think this is especially complicated. The phrase "his spaghetti were..." contains an ellipsis, or perhaps synecdoche. More fully he means "his spaghetti meals were..." With such a ellipsis you would normally use a plural word, which would arguably be: "his spaghettis were..." but he chose to simply use the Italian plural instead.

Plurals moving from one language to another are often a subtle and arguable thing, and sometimes I think some skilled users of English are rather to pedantic about it. For example, it is not uncommon to hear phrases like "the data are", rather than "the data is". In some translations of the Bible you see the plural of Cherub and Seraph given as "cherubims and seraphims", which use both an Hebrew and English plural. And it parallels the old argument over whether a single cube is a dice or a die.

My opinion is that both are right, though I think that spaghetti is now sufficiently incorporated into the language that spaghettis would be more appropriate. It is worth pointing out that the passage was written nearly 100 years ago, and perhaps spaghetti was much less common a word in English at that time, and the Italian form might have been more appropriate at that time.

I'd say spaghetti is commonly used as a mass noun, but it is hardly unprecedented for a mass noun to have a plural too. Fish and fruit are both mass nouns, but fishes and fruits are both perfectly acceptable, if subtly different in meaning.

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So what's your actual answer? That Maugham's meaning in "his spaghetti were very much better than his pictures" is that "his spaghetti meals were very much better than his pictures"? (That's what I think too, and that's what you seem to be saying in the first paragraph, but by the end of your answer I'm not sure what you're saying about his meaning. :-) The question, after all, is not about what's right today, only one of interpretation.) –  ShreevatsaR Jul 22 '11 at 14:06

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