Words: Referendums

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Lord Neill's proposed rules about referendums - that they should be presented to the electorate without bias, cutting out any sneaky questions of the "Don't you think ... ?" sort - will be welcomed by all right-minded people. Except those who claim that they ought to be called referenda. None of the newspapers I read last week used the old-fashioned Latin plural, but there are plenty of people left who believe in it. Indeed, both the Times and the Independent On Sunday were using it not long ago, in connection with the polls on the political future of Northern Ireland, as did nearly all the papers about the polls on Scottish and Welsh devolution, which were also called referenda.

So the "-a" ending is not dead yet, and one can't help sympathising a little with those who still care for it. For some of them it must be deeply unsettling to find that all that grind at school, all those efforts to please their teachers and get it right, were a waste of time. Others, who painfully learnt these things later by tugging at their own bootstraps, also have a right to be aggrieved. They cringe when they read about stadiums and curriculums and memorandums. Perhaps they would feel better if they knew that memorandums can be found in authors as eminent as Shakespeare and Swift.

But to revert to referenda. The Oxford English Dictionary, in Robert Burchfield's supplement of 1981, makes the interesting suggestion that referendums and referenda mean different things, or at least ought to. The key to this is the difference between the gerundive and the gerund, the upshot being that referendums are a certain kind of voting procedure and referenda, which is a gerundive, means the questions being voted on, or, as in Latin, "those things to be referred". So you might have a referendum about several referenda, or several referendums each with the same question (or referendum) in it. I imagine the same case could be made for memorandums being notes, while memoranda are the contents of such notes.

However, since there is no difference in English between a gerundive and a gerund, such Latin-based explanations seem rather artificial, though they are certainly elegant. Modern grammarians don't mention gerunds and gerundives at all; others prefer to talk about "verbal nouns".

Those of us who break the rules (or supposed rules) of grammar are often called "permissive", as though we were somehow responsible for the moral decline of the nation. The sticklers appeal to the ancient conventions, but I suspect that they are not really interested in gerunds and gerundives - nor, for that matter, in the sort of grammatical nicety that persuaded the Greeks that they couldn't do without eight separate noun-cases. No one complains that we have no inflections for the dual number, as the Greeks had. No, the sticklers are after something else. They want to keep up appearances, to be respectable. This is a perfectly worthy aim, but it hasn't got much to do with grammar.