Fritz Groothues

Of course it’s all too late now, and it may not have mattered anyway. But a closer look at the way the EU referendum question was worded and at the layout of the ballot paper raises some interesting questions.

ballot-2016

First – the ‘Remain’ option is the more complicated of the two. The equivalent of “Remain a member of the European Union” would have been “Cease to be a member of the European Union”. So anyone with a dislike of bureaucratic language would instinctively prefer the clarity of the second option. In any case, the first two lines of the ballot paper clearly state that this referendum was on the membership of the Eruopean Union, so there was no need to repeat the ‘member’ element in either of the options.

Second – the choice of the word ‘remain’ is problematic. English has a perfectly straightforward verb that could have been used instead: stay. A look at the Oxford English Dictionary highlights the different connotations for the two words, stemming from the different contexts in which they are being used.

The first meaning given by the OED for the intransitive form of ‘remain’ is to be left behind after the removal, use, or destruction of some part, number, or quantity. There is a passive quality here, exemplified in words such as ‘remainder’.

‘Stay’, on the other hand, has more positive nuances in the range of its meanings. It is more active, more the result of a positive decision. It can mean ‘to stand one’s ground’, ‘to stand firm’. One of the words expressing the positive connotation is ‘mainstay’, which implies support, something that can be relied on.

Third – given these considerations, it would have been possible to adopt a form of words similar to that used for the referendum in 1975 on British membership of the European Community.

ballot-1975

Of course nobody knows if the result would have been different, but maybe more attention should be paid next time.

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