Multiple use of an inapt adjective

Every Saturday, The Times carries a Feedback column, which often discusses issues of English language style and usage. One topic covered on 3 February 2024 was the adjective multiple. A reader had objected to a report stating that Britons were buying lunchtime meal deals ‘multiple times a week’. The reader asked whether The Times has abandoned the word several.

The columnist (Rose Wild) agreed that several ‘would have done nicely there’ and she listed several examples appearing in The Times in that week: multiple wars, multiple houses, multiple board members, multiple policy problems, multiple dates, multiple species, multiple phones, multiple surgeries, multiple second jobs, multiple dialects of Chinese. She said it would have been better to express all these meanings using many, lots of, repeated or more than one.  

Rose Wild went on to say: ‘Some might think that “multiple” sounds posher or more sophisticated that the traditional alternatives. Actually, it sounds like jargon.’

What do dictionaries say?

I looked online at the Collins, Merriam-Websters and Cambridge dictionaries. For British English, Collins lists the meaning:

  • consisting of many parts, involving many people, or having many uses

Collins lists the following meanings in American English:

  • having (or consisting of) many parts, elements, etc.; more than one or once; manifold or complex
  • shared by (or involving) many
  • many or very many; numerous

Merriam-webster has basically the same list (as Collins American) , though structuring it slightly differently:

  • consisting of, including, or involving more than one (multiple births, multiple choices)
  • many, manifold (multiple achievements, He suffered multiple injuries in the accident.)
  • shared by many (multiple ownership)
  • having numerous aspects or functions: various (life is very multiple; full of movements, facts, and news—John Galsworthy)

To aid understanding, I’ve included the Merriam-Webster examples, but for conciseness I haven’t included the examples from Collins and Cambridge.

Cambridge offers only:

  • very many of the same type, or of different types

In addition, Cambridge also lists the prefix multiple- It describes this prefix as meaning ‘more than one and usually several of something’.

The dictionaries also list some specialised uses of multiple, referring:

  • to an electrical circuit having 2 or more conductors connected in parallel, or to an electrical circuit to which terminals can be connected at a number of points.
  • in botany to a multiple fruit ‘formed by coalescence of the ripening ovaries’

Comments on the dictionary definitions

I discuss below 3 aspects of the dictionary definitions:

  • Parts of a compound whole
  • How many is ‘multiple’?  
  • Can multiple mean various?

Parts of a compound whole

The definitions in Collins and Merriam-Webster include (as at least one of the senses they give) the notion of something consisting of many parts or many components, of being manifold or complex. That sense is also clearly present in:

  • many of Merriam-Webster’s examples (multiple births, multiple choices, multiple injuries, multiple ownership, probably even multiple achievements).
  • the specialised meanings given (multiple electrical circuits, multiple fruit). 

Collins gives that sense as the only one for British English, but Merriam-Webster and Collins (for American English) also give other senses.

On the other hand, the Cambridge definitions contains no reference whatsoever to parts of a compound whole.

How many is ‘multiple’?

 Can ‘multiple refer to ‘more than one item’, or must it refer to a larger number? Merriam-Webster mentions:

  •  ‘more than one’ in describing parts of a compound whole; but
  • ‘many’ or ‘numerous’ in describing the other senses it lists.

Collins (for British English) uses only ‘many’ and Cambridge uses only ‘very many’.

Collins (for American English) is equivocal:

  • in describing parts of a compound whole, it starts by referring to ‘many’ parts or elements, but then goes on to refer to ‘more than one’.
  • in describing other senses, it uses only ‘many’ (or ‘very many’ or ‘numerous’).  

Can multiple mean various?

I find the final sense given by Merriam-Webster (‘having numerous aspects or functions: various’) rather odd. I would not use multiple myself to mean ‘various’. Perhaps the Galsworthy example is an instance of an author using the word with literary licence, rather than a truly mainstream usage.

‘Multiple’ has a distinctive meaning

I first noticed this increasing use of multiple in the late 1990s. Pretty soon, it seemed to be everywhere. In most cases, people seemed to be using multiple just as a pretentious and misguidedly technocratic synonym for ‘more than one’.

I deplore this trend because it makes it erodes the distinctive meaning of multiple, referring to things that consist of several components.  Here are 2 examples I always have in mind:

  • Invoices or shipping notes that come in multiple parts. In days when carbon copy printing still existed, documents like that often came in several copies, with printing on the top copy and with the lower copies being carbon copies of the top copy. Each copy would then go to a different company or department.
  • Multiple-choice tests. Each question offers a set menu of answers. Each answer is a part of a carefully conceived menu, it is not a single isolated answer.

In examples like that, multiple conveysthe fact that each part is a component of a single compound whole, not a random collection of separate items. To my mind that distinction between multiple components of a single compound whole and many separate unlinked items is useful and is worth retaining. So, I would reserve multiple for that use only.

If something consists of more than one component, I would happily say it has multiple components, even if it has only 2 components. To my mind, the defining characteristic of multiple is that the items described are parts of a compound whole.

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