English language Language Usage Writing

Multiple choice

[Note: An updated and expanded post about “multiple” appeared on Aug. 15, 2018.]

Q: Would you indulge me by discussing the overuse of “multiple”? It’s not attractive, nor does it save syllables. What’s wrong with good old “many”? I’m all for a varied vocabulary, but some of these fad words become so ubiquitous that variety doesn’t even come into the picture.

A: Not only does “multiple” not save syllables, but it adds one. In our opinion, a good writer avoids words that are longer than need be. Shorter is often more beautiful, too, as in this excerpt (which we’ve quoted before) from Yeats’s “When You Are Old”:

When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.

While we find “multiple” a bit clunky, there’s nothing wrong with the word. It’s been used as an adjective since the mid-17th century to refer to many people or things.

But “many” is much, much older, going all the way back to Anglo-Saxon times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Let’s skip the Old English citations in the OED and go directly to Shakespeare for an example.

Here’s Guildenstern (of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern notoriety) speaking to King Claudius in Hamlet (1604):

We will ourselves provide:
Most holy and religious fear it is
To keep those many many bodies safe
That live and feed upon your majesty.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.