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The Referendum Commission believes the word 'referendum' should be pluralised as if it was English - but some linguistic purists beg to disagree.
A House Divided

Let’s figure this out – what’s the real plural of referendum?

It often seems as if the debate on pluralising ‘referendum’ can be as divisive as the issues being voted upon. So who’s right?

This article was first published on 23 October 2011 but given today’s multiple votes, we decided to revisit the issue.

WHENEVER THE PUBLIC is asked to cast its vote on matters of policy – or, more commonly in Ireland, on a constitutional referendum – we happily refer to the poll as a referendum.

Whenever there are two of those ballots happening at the same time, however, the public seems to divide on matters beyond the mere items being voted upon.

It’s a debate which keeps coming up, time and time again – so just what, exactly, is the plural of ‘referendum’?

First of all it’s important to go back and discuss the original origin of the word. ‘Referendum’ is derived from Latin – specifically the verb ‘referre’, meaning ‘to refer’.

The problem with the plural is that the ten-letter word we use now was never actually used in older times – the word preferred in previous eras was ‘plebiscite’, based on the Latin ‘plebescita’.

This word is derived from the old Roman-era word ‘plebeian’, meaning ‘commoner’. The word was originally used to refer to votes of the Concilium Plebis, which was essentially the Roman-era parliament.

It was only in the mid-19th century that the word ‘referendum’, as a derivation (the ‘gerund’) of the verb ‘referre’, began to be used by Anglophones. A gerund is the -ing form of a verb – so the best English translation would be ‘referral’ – as in, the ‘referral’ (or ‘referring’) of a certain matter to the public for their vote.

But the absence of any historical precedent isn’t the only hindrance in trying to figure out the plural. There’s also the fact that in Latin, there simply isn’t a plural form of a gerund. Think of English – you wouldn’t talk about the ‘referrings’ of bills to a court or to the public, you would only speak about the ‘referring’ – the idea being that there is only one idea, one notion, of referring a matter from A to B.

Grammatical value

That’s what leaves us with a grammatical vacuum as far as this goes. The debate then rests on whether a modern English-speaking society should treat the word like the modern invention that it is – and to pluralise it as if it was a standard English word – or whether to modulate Latin plurals to suit the word’s original origin.

And, frustratingly, this is where things begin to get even more complicated. The choice between English and Latin plurals is muddled by the very nature of the ballots themselves – as in, whatever matters are being voted on.

Because there isn’t a plural gerund in Latin, the two different options for pluralisation have an actual impact on the meaning of the word itself.

If ‘referendum’ means ‘referral’, then ‘referendums’ – by its inherent definition – pluralises the actual act of voting, according to the Oxford English Dictionary anyway. Using ‘referendums’, therefore, implies having several ballots on a single issue.

The alternative – the attempt to pluralise a Latin word that can’t be pluralised, turning it into ‘referenda’ (just like ‘memoranda’) – implies the other option: the idea of having separate ‘referrals’, i.e. for separate measures.

So, going by the Oxford school: ‘referendums’ means separate votes on a single (or perhaps related) issues, while ‘referenda’ means votes on separate issues.

And this is where some user discretion comes in. For our current circumstances – the two plebiscites being put to the public on Thursday – we have two ballots, on defined and individual issues.

But while the outcome of the vote on judges’ pay will not have any sway on the outcome of the one on Oireachtas inquiries, there’s always the argument that the two are related because they both deal with proposed amendments to the same document – Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution of Ireland.

So – ‘referendums’ or ‘referenda’? As it turns out, it’s all really just a matter of preference.

Which is your preference?

Poll Results:

Referenda (3783)
Have we nothing better to be voting on? (1352)
Referendums (1140)

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