On the Plural of Referendum

Quite a few people are suggesting that one way out of the current Brexit fiasco is to have another referendum when the terms of the withdrawal agreement (if any) are known. Bafflingly, Theresa May has argued that a second plebiscite would be `a betrayal of democracy’ and has categorically ruled out that possibility. Given her U-turn about last year’s General Election one might reasonably infer that a second referendum is now a racing certainty, but she called the election because she was confident she would win. All the signs are now that if given a chance to vote again the UK would vote to remain in the European Union, so the PM will need a very hard push to allow a second referendum.  A smart politician would have used the evidence of electoral misconduct by the Leave campaigns as a way out, but we’re not dealing with smart politicians on either side of the House nowadays.

Whether or not there is a second referendum an important question arises from the possibility, i.e. 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 the current discussion, “to refer”. Ferre is actually an irregular verb, which complicates the discussion a bit, 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’, e.g. running, eating, loving.The word formed from a verb with the ending `ing’ can also function as a present participle in English, but we wont be going there. It may easy to muddle up gerunds with participles in English, but not in Latin as they are formed in distinctly different ways.

IAs an example, in the case of `loving’ the  relevant Latin verb is the first conjugation amare (amo amas amat and all that) and the appropriate gerund is amandus. You can this sort of Latin construction surviving in such English words as “graduand”. Note, however, that a gerund has no plural form because that would make no sense in Latin. There are plural forms in English such as `doings’ and `comings and goings’ but I don’t think these are relevant here as I interpret them as jocular, and pedantry is a very serious business. Moreover

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 loving example above, the gerundive form is amandus in a masculine case or, if referring to a female entity, amanda, hence the name Amanda, 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 gerundives formed from other verbs are constructed in a similar fashion depending on their conjugation.

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

As an aside, based on my own experiences in mathematics and physics, the abbreviation `QED’ which is often placed at the end of a proof is short for `Quod Erat Demonstrandum’, meaning `which was required to be shown’ rather than `Quite Easily Done’.  I’m surprised how many people use QED without knowing what it means!

Now, back 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 single 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?

P.S. In a forthcoming post I shall give the full conjugation of the verb brexire, as brexit must be formed from that verb  in the same way that exit is formed from exire (i.e. third person singular in the active voice; exire is an irregular verb but basically similar to fourth conjugation). On this basis the gerund of brexire would be brexeundum and the gerundive brexeundus

2 Responses to “On the Plural of Referendum”

  1. This sounds right to me. If you had a single election, in which there were multiple questions on the ballot, that ballot would contain multiple things to be referred — that is, multiple referenda.

    Next, you should address the question of the proper plural of “curriculum vitae”. It seems to me that if I make multiple copies of my CV, those would be “curricula vitae”, but if many people send me their CVs, the collection would have to be “curricula vitarum”.

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