Is it grammatical to use ‘respective memorandum’ in court decisions?

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THIS very interesting grammar question was e-mailed to me recently by a senior citizen and triathlon enthusiast who calls himself Tritorns:

“I am a practicing lawyer. I have read many court decisions that alternately use the word ‘memorandum’ or ‘memoranda’ in the following sentence: ‘All the parties are ordered to submit their respective memorandum or memoranda.’ My question is: Which is more grammatical, ‘memorandum’ or ‘memoranda’?”

My reply to Tritorns:
The grammatically correct usage for that sentence is the plural “memoranda.” Here’s why: The adjective “respective” means particular or separate, so when it modifies a noun, that noun must consist of two or more of the kind to match this plural sense.

It’s therefore grammatically faulty for the singular “memorandum” to be preceded by “respective.” On the other hand, the plural “memoranda” and its plural variant “memorandums” can both be premodified by “respective.”


To be grammatically aboveboard, therefore, lawyers should write: “All the parties are ordered to submit their respective memoranda” or “All the parties are ordered to submit their respective memorandums.” I’ll go as far as saying that if the many court decisions you’ve read consistently used the singular “memorandum” premodified by “respective,” the justices or judges who wrote them had been grammatically wrong all these years.

Still on the subject of faulty modification, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum who goes by the username Miss Mae asked this question:
“I wanted to find out if all of the four members of a Filipino band in our place are single men because they named themselves ‘Sons of ______,’ so I asked the band leader, ‘Are all the members only sons?’ He replied that he’s the only son in their group, and that the other three have siblings.

“Should I have asked ‘Are all the members sons only?’ so the band leader wouldn’t have misunderstood me?”

My reply to Miss Mae:
From how you relate your conversation with that band leader, you did ask the right question, “Are all the members only sons?” and he answered you correctly if indeed he said something to this effect, “I’m the only son in our group; the other three have siblings.”

The problem is that when you asked your question, you presumed that by naming their band “Sons of _____,” they meant to say that they are “all only sons”—in Tagalog “lahat kaisang-isang anak na lalaki sa pamilya”—when, from all indications, they actually meant they were all sons of whatever occupational word it is that completes the phrase “Sons of ____,” like, say, “Sons of OFWs” or “Sons of Great Sailors.”

This is why I’m almost sure that the band leader understood you perfectly and gave you a perfectly clear, unambiguous answer. It was the frame of mind you brought to the exchange that was logically faulty, and that having been the case, you wouldn’t have appreciated the correctness of the band leader’s answer even if you had asked the alternative question that you suggested, “Are all the members sons only?” (which, by the way, is syntactically flawed and even more confusing).

Neither you nor the band leader was at fault in that faux pas, though. Both of you are just victims of the treacherousness of the word “only” as the ultimate floating quantifier, capable of creating so much ambiguity and semantic mischief if we are not careful in using or positioning it in our statements. Our only defense against this ambiguity and semantic mischief is what linguists call disambiguating qualifiers, or additional statements designed to clarify our meaning and eliminate ambiguity.

Check out the prescriptions and caveats discussed in my essay, “How to avoid semantic bedlam in the usage of the word ‘only’,” as posted in the Forum (http://tinyurl.com/m7qbznd). They should enable you to navigate “only” confidently in your written and spoken English.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

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8 Comments

  1. “‘All the parties are ordered to submit their respective memorandum or memoranda.’”

    “The adjective “respective” means particular or separate, so when it modifies a noun, that noun must consist of two or more of the kind to match this plural sense.

    Mr. Carillo, plese allow me to add to your answer which I wholeheartedly agree. The word “their” also supports your point. because if the word “respective” is removed it is still meant in plural sense. – their memoranda.

  2. Justaskingseriously on

    Memorandum is the singular form in Latin. Memoranda is the plural from in Latin. If adding “s” makes a noun plural in English, then so be it. But why ad “s” when there is already a plural form consistent with the language being borrowed?

    • That’s just how the English language dealt with the Latin “memorandum” and “memoranda” and there’s actually not much we can do about it now. English appropriated “memorandum” for the singular form and “memoranda” for the plural, then made an anglicized plural for “memorandum” by suffixing it with “s”—“memorandums”—the way it does to the singular noun “lawyer” to pluralize it to “lawyers.” Consider this usage note from Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary: “Although some commentators warn against the use of ‘memoranda’ as a singular and condemn the plural ‘memorandas,’ our evidence indicates that these forms are rarely encountered in print. We have a little evidence of the confusion of forms, including use of ‘memorandum’ as a plural, in speech (as at congressional hearings). As plurals ‘memoranda’ and ‘memorandums’ are about equally frequent.” In contrast, though, Tritorns presents evidence that in many Philippine court decisions he has read, the decidedly singular form “memorandum” is erroneously treated as plural when used in the plural form “respective memorandum.” There’s the rub, as old-fashioned English speakers would say.

  3. Justaskingseriously on

    If each party has only one memorandum, the singular would perfectly fit the situation. If one of the parties has two or more memoranda that could conceivably include various issues, then the plural would supercede the singular, because one of the parties with more memoranda would have to claim the plural form for that party to be properly addressed.

    “Respective” has its roots from the Latin “spectare” which means “to look at”. Adding the prefix “r” gives the shortcut for again. The sense therefore of “respective” is looking at each party and not all the parties together.

    The lawyers’ practice supercedes/supersedes any other practice, because in their practice, the occurrence of any party having more than one memo most likely hardly ever happens. With so much paperwork, lawyers resort to “forms” to save time. I am not a lawyer. So what do I really know about lawyers’ practice? Still, each party is addressed by “respective”. And “established” usage in any profession has the force of how language as medium of expression should be.

    • Your spirited defense of the acceptability of “respective memorandum” in court and lawyers’ circles is laudable considering that you admit you aren’t a lawyer, but I’m afraid that it doesn’t hold much water from a grammatical and semantic standpoint. As to your argument that “respective” has its roots from the Latin “spectare,” thus giving the sense of “looking at each party and not all the parties together,” I find it truly fascinating and instructive. You are in effect arguing that the legal profession, like a band of language outlaws, is exempt from the usual rules of grammar and usage. In the particular case of “respective,” though, a lot must have been lost in translation and transition from Latin root to current English usage. All the English dictionaries I have checked by far are unanimous in defining “respective” as an adjective that–as Webster’s New World College Dictionary puts it–means “as relates individually to each of two or more persons or things; several: they went their respective ways.” There’s not a hint at all of the sense that you describe as “looking at each party and not all the parties together.”

    • Justaskingseriously on

      “as relates individually to each of two or more persons or things; several: they went their respective ways.”

      Each party looked at: “as relates individually to each of” two or more persons. Persons in the case of the “respective memorandum” would refer to the possessors of such memoranda (one memorandum for each of two or more persons would equal to at least two memoranda).

      “several: they went their respective ways.” It is obvious that “several” refers to two or more going wherever they or each of them were going.

      “respective” relates “individually” to each….and relates “severally” as in the example of subjects going his/her/its or their separate ways.

      If your focus was on looking for the “hint”, then you do not find the hint. There is no hint. There is only the stark meaning right there in black and white. Parties or people possessing memoranda and people going their separate ways.

    • Justaskingseriously, you express your views quite well but I’m afraid I can’t appreciate your point. Let’s agree to disagree. Have a great week ahead!

    • Justaskingseriously on

      I am afraid that you deprive your readers of the importance of punctuation for clarity by deleting my comments that touched on the semicolon separating “individually” from “several” in your quote from Webster’s New World College Dictionary: “as relates individually to each of two or more persons or things; several: they went their respective ways.”

      The first meaning of respective “as relates individually…” applies to our topic “respective memorandum” as objects of the transitive verb “to submit”. The semicolon (;) separates this from the second meaning, “several” . This second meaning is buttressed as truly “second” or separate from the first meaning by the example “they went their respective ways.” Notice that the verb does not require any object, because it is an intransitive verb.

      It is the true function of dictionaries to give as many meanings as they can find from the “established” ways people use the word in question. And punctuations are used to make everything as clear as possible. Dictionaries are mere references to the way(s) people use a particular language.

      If I see this comment published, then we can agree to disagree if you insist.