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Mind your language

Why the plural of ‘referendum’ must be ‘referendums’

The logically preferable form is clear, even if usage remains divided

2 July 2016

9:00 AM

2 July 2016

9:00 AM

‘One referendum, two referenda,’ chanted my husband. ‘No, no, it’s a gerund. The English plural is referendums,’ interrupted Veronica, red in the face.

It’s odd no one can agree — not about the politics, but about the word. Part of the trouble is that it’s newish, never used in English before 1817. Since then, like foot and mouth, it has come in spikes. One spike was in 1898–99, when the six colonies of Australia tried to federate. Referendums held in 1898 failed, because New South Wales had required a minimum of 80,000 votes in favour, and only 71,595 were forthcoming. So in 1899 everyone wore ribbons printed with ‘Federation Yes!’ This time it worked. A generation later, in 1923–4, The Spectator sought referendums on Empire Free Trade. ‘Would it be possible for a Government which was defeated on a Referendum to continue in office, although it had a majority in the House of Commons?’ asked Philip Lloyd-Greame, a minister who soon after changed his name to Cunliffe-Lister, to benefit from a legacy. It was a family habit: an ancestor Yarburgh Greame had changed his name to Yarburgh Yarburgh. Anyway, that question remained.


For a century and more, The Spectator called them referenda: in 1945, or in 1978 in a piece by Vernon Bogdanor, or in 1997 in one by Sir (as he wasn’t yet) Peregrine Worsthorne. In 1993, even Simon Heffer wrote here of referenda. Since, in 2010, he was to declare for referendums in the Daily Telegraph style book, perhaps that referenda had been thrust upon him by subeditors.

How can we decide? The OED says referendum is either from ‘classical Latin referendum, gerund or neuter gerundive of referre’. It doesn’t insist. Its 1989 edition had said: ‘referendums is logically preferable as a modern plural form meaning “ballots on one issue” (as a Latin gerund referendum has no plural); the Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning “things to be referred”, necessarily connotes a plurality of issues’. It thought referendums would prevail. A revision in 2009 found usage ‘fairly evenly divided’. It judged the appeal to plurality of issues ‘unlikely to affect actual usage’. More’s the pity. Gerund or gerundive, the plural in English must be referendums.      — Dot Wordsworth

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