Saturday, November 1, 2008

Grammar nitpickyness: referenda/ums

With discussion abounding on my second blogging home about Questions One, Two, and Three, I'm seeing confusion about the plural for "referendum". As somebody who spent a few years studying ballot the instances of balloting Québécois voters on sovereignty, this grammatical discussion came up frequently. Here is the consensus on this all-important question among people who specialize in this.

To set rules, it is important to realize the origins of this word. "Referendum" entered the English language in the mid-1800s from Latin by way of Swiss practice:

1847, "submitting a question to the voters as a whole" (originally chiefly in reference to Switzerland), from Fr. or Ger., from L. referendum "that which must be referred," lit. "thing brought back," from neut. gerundive of referre "to bring or take back" (see refer). As a gerundive, it has no plural in Latin; referendums is preferred in Eng.

There are problems with that last line. The word "referendum" refers to similar but distinct practices: the question put to voters, and the electoral exercise of voting upon it. That poses a problem, one exacerbated by the confusion over whether the word reached English through a Germanic route (German) or a Romance route (French). I would waver the second, not least of all because Napoleon III used these devices at the same time. He did so rather creatively, asking questions akin to "should we provide free food to all, invade our neighbor, and breathe oxygen, or do you hate all things under the sun?" to get the answers he wanted. I would wager the British were more concerned about government in France rather than what the Swiss were doing.

The idea of referring a question to a voter -- a referendum as a governing exercise -- is rooted in the usage of the original creators of the word. That is, the practice of putting a question to voters is consistent with the practice which gave us this Latin root. Thus, several questions referred to a voting public on the same ballot are actually properly called referenda.

This, however, is different from the electoral exercise whereby voters go through the rigmarole of checking in, checking boxes, etc. To pass judgment on the question itself. This modern electoral exercise is not connected to earlier practices. As it has a similar, but different meaning, it is governed by modern rules of grammar. A plural of such events is referendums.

So there are three referenda on the ballot this November in Massachusetts -- three questions whose resolution depends on the popular will. The state will not hold two referendums this year, as only once do we vote on questions submitted to voter judgment. We can expect referendums on various issues every year in Massachusetts. In California, there are dozens of referenda on the ballot, though the referendums in California have over the years made the state harder and harder to govern.

Or at least that's what I've been taught.

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