Please stop using "multiple"

Please stop using "multiple"

December 29, 2020 By Bill Swanson Resources

There have been multiple times in the recent past that I have run across multiple uses of the word "multiple" … and it’s starting to drive me bonkers. I’m an old codger, too, and I can attest that use of "multiple" is a recent phenomenon (the exceptions being "multiple-choice test," which probably goes back to Aristotle or maybe Genesis, and multiple sclerosis, which is Greek like Aristotle was, and means a lot of … well, something medical. Not my field). There are at least five major things wrong with “multiple,” so here we go:

  1. It’s redundant on its face. The word that follows “multiple” is nearly always a plural: multiple cars, multiple incidents, multiple cuts, multiple edits, multiple multiples. They are already plural. “Multiple” means “more than one” … and so does the plural “s” on the end of a noun. I cannot immediately think of any construction in which “multiple” would be followed by a singular (as opposed to mass-count or collective singular) noun. (“Multiple-choice” is of course an adjective because otherwise you have multiple choices, and “This test is multiple choice” is simply an idiom and not prescriptive.)
  2. To me, it’s not only redundant; it’s what I call an “empty” word. It doesn’t mean anything. It tells you exactly nothing about the noun it’s modifying, except there’s more than one of them, and you already knew that. What’s the difference between “cars” and “multiple cars”? I can’t think of any.
  3. There’s a general rule of good writing that the specific is nearly always better than the general: Nine cars is better than “cars,” “a few cars” or “some cars.” The question is, how much work do you have to do to get a better specific? You might be able to do it if you’re the writer, but if you’re the editor, you may or may not be able to. (When I worked in newspapers, I could hit the writer with a spitball, and sometimes did. In my present job, the writers are often contractors several years in the rear-view mirror, and I’m not allowed to talk to them. Also, no more spitballs.)
  4. Here’s what I think may be the worst thing about “multiple.” It’s three syllables, when nearly every alternative is shorter and sharper. It’s techy, sometimes pretentious, what we used to call “high-falutin’.” And I have a theory that’s why it has come into prominence: multiple syllables, academic-sounding, “formal,” the same way “teachers” morphed into “educators” and people employ the abomination twins "firstly" and "lastly."
  5. There’s a generous handful of words that could be used in place of multiple, each with its own useful connotation. Admittedly, they usually require some knowledge about the nature of the number of objects; is it only a few cars, a lot of cars, many cars, a majority of cars, most cars, or something vague, like just “some” cars? And yes, you may not know if it is only a few cars or a lot of cars. So just write “cars” and move on down the road.

Here are some common groups of admittedly vague-but-better-than-multiple modifiers, by general count:

Not many of ’em:
not many
a few 
a couple of
a handful of
Whole bunches of ’em:
a majority of (“vast majority” has its own problems)
lots of/a lot of 
a plurality of
nearly all
much, much of
great deal of
plenty of
Indeterminate/who knows how many:
scores of 
Exaggeration for effect:
a ton of
zillions of
a skosh of (I just learned “skosh” is from the Japanese word “sukoshi,” shortened by U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan after World War II. It means “a little bit.”)
almost all/almost none
hardly any/nearly all
a galaxy of

(One online thesaurus I looked at had no less than 66 synonyms for “many” alone. And let’s just agree not to do "plethora," “nadir” and “dearth,” okay?).

I submit that as weak or vague as many of these modifiers might be, every single one of them is better than “multiple,” even if it’s only by a tad or a smidgeon. 

Header photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash.

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