No referenda, please..

One of the most interesting topics under discussion after the announcement of the results of Thursdays Referendum on Scottish independence is whether there will be another one which, in turn, leads to the question what is the proper plural of “referendum”?

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m never pedantic about such matters. Well, maybe a little bit, sometimes. Latin was my best subject at O-level, though, so I can’t resist making a comment.

Any dictionary will tell you that “referendum” is obtained from the Latin verb referre which is itself formed as re- (prefix meaning “back”) + ferre (to carry), thus its literal meaning is “carry back” or, more relevantly, “to refer”. Ferre is actually an irregular verb, so I’ll use simpler examples of regular verbs below

Latin grammar includes two related concepts derived from a verb, the gerund and the gerundive. The gerund is a verbal noun; such things exist in English in forms that mean the act of something, eg running, eating, loving. In the last case the relevant Latin verb is the first conjugation amare and the gerund is amandus. You can find a similar construction surviving in such English words as “graduand”. Note however that a gerund has no plural form because that would make no sense.

Related to the gerund is the gerundive which, as its name suggests, is an adjectival form related to the gerund, specifically expressing necessity.

In Latin, an adjective takes an ending that depends on the gender of the noun it describes; the gerundive also follows this pattern. In the example given above, the gerundive form is amandus in a masculine case or, if referring to a female entity, amanda, hence the name, which means “deserving or requiring love”, or amandum for a neuter noun. In cases where the noun is plural the forms would be amandi, amandae, and amanda. Endings for other verbs are formed in a similar fashion depending on their conjugation.

From this example you can see that in Latin amandum could mean either “loving” (gerund) or “a thing to be loved” (gerundive). Latin grammar is sufficiently clear, however, that the actual meaning will be clear from the context.

Now, to referendum. It seems clear to me that this is a gerundive and thus means “a thing to be referred” (the thing concerned being of no gender, as is normal in such cases in Latin). So what should be the word for more than one referendum?

Think about it and you’ll realise that referenda would imply “more than one thing to be referred”. The familiar word agenda is formed precisely this way and it means “(a list of things) to be done”. But this is not the desired meaning we want, ie “more than one example of a thing being referred”.

I would therefore argue that referenda is clearly wrong, in that it means something quite different from that needed to describe more than one of what a referendum is.

So what should we use? This is a situation where there isn’t a precise correspondence between Latin and English grammatical forms so it seems to me that we should just treat referendum as an English noun and give it the corresponding English plural. So “referendums” it is.

Any questions?

2 Responses to “No referenda, please..”

  1. Personally, rather than struggle, I just consult the OED, which says ‘The plural forms referendums and referenda are both found; in the early 21st cent. usage is fairly evenly divided between the two, as it was also in the late 20th cent. The form referenda is by analogy with memoranda, agenda, etc., and more generally with plurals in -a of Latin-derived words with singular in -um. This form is sometimes deprecated in usage guides, etc., on the grounds that a Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning ‘things to be referred’, would necessarily connote a plurality of issues, but this view is unlikely to affect actual usage.’

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