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Brandon Robshaw: English Usage #12

Referenda or Referendums

Vanessa Feltz was doing a piece about the possibility of another Scottish referendum on independence, and she had on a guest (whose name I can't remember, I'm afraid) who used the plural form referenda. Feltz herself, however, kept using the form referendums. Neither explicitly corrected the other, but each went on doggedly emphasising their preferred form. It was as if a silent battle, subterranean to the actual topic under discussion, was being waged.

Personally I side with Feltz here. Referenda sounds prissy to me; self-consciously "correct", as if one is airing one's knowledge of Latin declensions. Referendums to my ear is more natural. It's true that we all say agenda and not agendums, which would sound ridiculous. But language isn't always consistent.

My spell-check programme approves both forms, anyway, so it looks as if you can make your own choice on this one.

Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.


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