• Bertrand

Is it referendums or referenda?

When I began my thesis on why some governments permit an independence referendum to be held and why others do not, I was immediately faced with a decision. Should I try to increase my academic cred by using the Latinized referenda to pluralize my cases? Or should I just stick an "s" on the end like a normal person and call it a day? Think how some people (who likely get invited to tons of parties) insist on using memoranda instead of memorandums to refer to the plural. In our conversations together, my adviser frequently used referenda and so I adopted this approach for a while in order to avoid coming off as uncultured.

But it turns out referendums is actually the correct usage! Evidently the word referendum comes from the Latin verb refero, which means "to bring back". I'm not sure what sort of "bringing back" a modern day referendum entails, but I guess we can blame that bit of confusion on the Swiss—who first started using the term and notoriously decide lots of national policy measures with electorate-wide votes. Anyways, ad referendum is the gerund form of refero, and because there's no way to pluralize gerunds in Latin (who knew!), we should pluralize referendum the English way by simply adding an "s". Case closed!

Or is it? If there's one thing a passing interest in linguistics has taught me, it is that terms like "correct" and "incorrect" are often misapplied when it comes to language. A linguist sees language as constantly evolving—just like any part of culture—and so the pedants who constantly insist on everyone employing "correct" usage have it backwards. What matters is clarity in communication—not snooty or old-fashioned rules.

But linguists still suggest a few exceptions to the "anything goes" approach to language. In order for writing to be taken seriously in formal settings, such as school or work, we should probably follow some conventions even if their origins are arbitrary. The referendum question is interesting because it appears that referenda is actually a hyper-correction. Scholars think they are following the formal convention by applying the rules of Latin to a word who's origins are Latin. But when in reality they would probably get some pretty weird looks from the citizens of 1st century Rome if they started talking about "referenda". Though perhaps this would be because Romans lived under a military dictatorship at the time and so wouldn't be sure what to make of direct democracy.

There's no need to be unnecessarily fancy in writing, especially when the fanciness isn't warranted in the first place. Therefore I will be using referendums proudly as I type it out several hundreds of times in the next two months. If academic success is all about spending a lot of time debating pedantic and pointless topics, I'm already loving it.


Grant, J. Tobin, and Yasuko Taoka. "The "Referendum" Conundrum: "Referenda" or "Referendums"?" PS: Political Science and Politics 44, no. 3 (2011): 563-64.

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