If you want to be a total pedant, write ‘referenda’ not ‘referendums’
A referendum on Scotland’s future is due in 2014. The Falkland islanders are holding one in March. David Cameron has a long overdue speech to make on Britain’s future in the EU, in which he will presumably explain under what circumstances he would call a referendum.
With so many in prospect, pedants are creeping out of the woodwork to argue ferociously over what is the correct plural of referendum. A graph produced by Google shows that it is a close contest, “referendums” edging ahead of “referenda”.
Time now for heavy duty pedantry. A person with no classical background can be excused for assuming that referendum is a noun like almost any other, with a plural created by adding an ‘s’. Until a pedant pops up to say that there is a convention that we stick to Latin way of forming the plurals of words that began as neuter Latin nouns. Using ‘media’ as the plural of ‘medium’ is the obvious example. By that precedent, the plural of referendum should perhaps be ‘referenda’.
Then along comes the superior pedant, armed with the knowledge that ‘referendum’ was never a nominative singular neuter Latin noun at all. It is actually derived from a Latin verb meaning to bring back. In Latin, a verbal noun, or gerund, has no plural, therefore if referendum is a gerund, it has no Latin plural, and to write ‘referenda’ is not merely pedantic but downright wrong.
However, nothing is that simple. Although we use referendum as a noun in English, in Latin it was an adjective. The adjectival form of a verb is not a gerund, but a gerundive, which unlike the gerund has a plural form. The commonest Latin gerundive to have passed into regular use English is ‘agenda.’ This is only used in the plural form, and as you can see, it ends in –a. So, if you want to be a super superior pedant, you can argue that the plural of referendum is referenda, and if anyone tries to contradict you, blind them with your knowledge of the distinction between a gerund and a gerundive.
Alternatively, why bother? Why not use ‘referendums’ because it looks less ugly and it is less pretentious.
Full disclosure: I gave up Latin after bluffing my way through an O level. This blog was compiled with the assistance of a university educated classicist.
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