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.
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