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Revenge of the Dummi

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While working out the language and the logic to fend off the snakes, I tumbled backward into the quicksand. This particular pit is called "The Black Hole of Grammar and Style," and it is marked on all journalists' maps with a skull and crossbones.

As it turns out, as many readers were offended by the use of the plural referendums as were offended by the prospect of voting on tax increases under the new "do-it-yourself" philosophy of the state legislature. Same with a recent use of the plural memorandums.



The objectors were folks who seemed determined that their high-school Latin not have been suffered in vain. Boiled to its essence, the readers' plaint was: "The plural of referendum is referenda, you dummy."



Which led me to wonder, "If more than one of us make that mistake, would that make us dummies or dummi?"



As I said, this is a swamp, and the only vine you can grab to save yourself was placed there by a guy named Webster. To the certain chagrin of the Latin purists, Mr. Webster prefers the "-ums" plural on both referendum and memorandum. I know this because I looked them up in Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language.



Note the words "New World" and "American Language." They describe where we live and the language we speak. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style concurs.



The English language, and its American cousin, is a weird stew of other languages, including Latin, but also Greek and French and Arabic and Anglo-Goth and Gaelic and Algonquin and dozens of other tongues. The rules for judging it are about as consistent as the rules for judging ice-skating at the Olympics: Lots of outcomes are possible, depending on what paths you've traveled and who's paying your salary.



Here's how one reader put the question: "When did the preferred plural change? It was my understanding that we kept Latin plurals intact as best we could. Addendum becomes addenda, referendum becomes referenda, and so on. What's next, is media going to become mediums?"



My honest response can only be, "I used to be a medium, until professional and personal circumstances put me on a steady diet of Twinkies and Slim Jims — better known to you Latin pedants as 'Twinkia' and 'Slim Jimi.' I did not remain a medium for long."



Actually, as the language evolves, the trend is away from Latin and Greek plurals. There are many irregular exceptions, of course, which is what makes English such a difficult language to master.



As proof, listen carefully to the way seasoned TV news-readers — many of whom actually were born here — butcher the language as they struggle mightily to earn those six-digit salaries of which we in the print medium (ahem) are so cravenly jealous. But I digress.



Many of the exceptions stem from the fields of law and medicine, where, I suspect, the overuse of Latin grammar serves as a fog for ratcheting up the fees.



Even there, the struggle is evident: Bacterium becomes bacteria, and nucleus becomes nuclei, but amoeba becomes amoebas rather than amoebae. Septum is accepted, but several become septums rather than septa. Same with your sinuses. Has your doctor ever told you that your sini were clogged?



Wrestling with these inconsistencies can be like wrestling with an octopus — which is an excellent case in point: Many educated people believe that the plural of octopus is octopi. Wrong. It's octopuses.



Actually, if you followed the perfectionists' prescription and used the root language's plural, it would be octopodes, as the root word is Greek.



I found a lovely treatise on this topic on the Internet, penned by a gentleman named James Barbeau, JD, MD. Note those initials after his name: Barbeau is both a physician and a lawyer, which means he knows enough Latin to flatten your Pocketus Librus into the shape of a Pancakamus. And here's what Barbeau said: "A useful and appropriate rule for dealing with plurals is, 'When in doubt, anglicize.'"



He's right. That's why we use bureaus instead of bureaux, and apparatchiks instead of apparatchiki. It's the approach preferred by Webster and The Associated Press Stylebook, which is where we at the Downtown Font of Knowledge turn for succor in moments of grammatical woe.



Those references, too, are filled with inexplicable exceptions, such as curricula and addenda. But we either use them as a guide or we spend all of our time in the grammatical swamp, mired up to our recta in quicksand.



In all, we should worry less about whether these referendums end in an "s," and worry more about whether they'll end in a long string of $$$$s.S



Dave Addis is a columnist for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.



The Virginian-Pilot © March 6, 2002



Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.





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