The Grammarphobia Blog

Multiple choices

Q: I often hear newscasters refer to a crowd or a group as “multiple people,” which just sounds wrong. I would say “several” or “many,” depending on the estimated number. What do you think?

A: For hundreds of years, the adjective “multiple” has been used to mean “many,” referring either to many things or to one thing made up of many parts.

But as you’ve noticed, the word is widely used these days, especially in the news media, as a substitute for almost any term for an inexact number: “several,” “few,” “many,” “numerous,” and so on.

We’ve found a great many (if not multiple!) examples of this online. Here’s a small sampling from a single day’s news reports:

“multiple people,” “multiple tornadoes,” “multiple vehicle crashes,” “multiple houses,” “multiple crews battling fire,” “multiple crime scenes,” “multiple dive teams,” “multiple roads closed,” “multiple felony counts,” “multiple new construction projects,” and “multiple cybersecurity officials.”

Why do journalists often use “multiple” when there are less imprecise words to choose from, depending on the rough size of the unknown number? We can think of several reasons.

In some cases, the writer may have no idea how many people or things are involved, so a less inexact term like “few” or “numerous” wouldn’t be appropriate. “Multiple” is suitably fuzzy.

In other cases, reporters may want to exaggerate the significance of a story or make their reporting sound more authoritative. An accident with “multiple” victims may sound more important than one with “several.”

Besides, some inexact terms can be used to magnify or minimize a number.

For example, the manufacturer of a defective product might use the terms “few” or “a handful” to play down the number of consumer complaints. But those same terms, used to describe the number of deaths caused by the product, would seem insensitive.

We’ve written before about words for inexact numbers. For instance, we’ve suggested that people may prefer a longer, more educated-sounding word (like “numerous“) to a shorter, everyday adjective (like “many”).

With words for inexact numbers, their meanings can depend on how they’re interpreted. So one person’s “several” might be another person’s “few.” And we even have words for exaggerated, imaginary numbers, like “umpteen” and “oodles.”

Getting back to “multiple,” it can mean an inexact large number or a small one, depending on the context. But unlike the other inexact terms, “multiple” can modify a singular noun or noun phrase, as in “the multiple Oscar nominee” or “a multiple count indictment,” or “the test was multiple choice.”

Before we go any further into the uses of “multiple,” let’s take a look at its etymology.

As you may know, the “multi-” prefix ultimately comes from Latin and means “many” or “much.” English acquired its “multi-” words after the Norman Conquest, mostly by way of French, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says, “The majority of English words beginning with multi– before the late 16th cent. are related to or derived < [from] multiply and multitude.

The first, “multiply,” was adopted from Anglo-Norman and Old French sometime before 1275; “multitude,” which is partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French and partly from Latin, dates back to around 1350.

As for “multiple,” it’s both a noun and an adjective adopted from Middle French, with the noun arriving first. Its more distant ancestor, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is the Late Latin multiplus (manifold).

In the OED’s earliest citation for “multiple” as a noun, from a document written sometime before 1595, the word means “a multitude, a great number.” But Oxford has only one example, and says that sense of the word is rare or obsolete.

However, other noun usages have survived, mostly with technical or scientific meanings.

For instance, in mathematics, “multiple” has been used steadily as a noun since the 1670s, according to our searches of historical databases.

Oxford defines the mathematical term as a “quantity which contains another quantity some number of times without remainder” or “a quantity which is the product of a given quantity and some other,” and adds: “Thus 4 is a multiple of 2; 6 is a multiple of 2 and 3.”

Beginning in the 1940s, the noun was used in the fields of electricity, telephony, and railway engineering. In these industries, the phrase “in multiple” means something like “in parallel” or “coupled together,” the OED says.

And since the early 1980s, Oxford says, the noun “multiple” has been used in the stock market to mean “a stock price expressed as a multiple of current or projected earnings per share.”

But the word is more commonly an adjective, a usage that dates from the mid-1600s.

It was first used to modify singular nouns and meant “consisting of or characterized by many parts, elements, etc.,” or “having several or many causes, results, aspects, locations, etc.,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example dates from 1647: “That Kings should bow down their necks under the double or rather multiple yoke of Pope and Archbishops.” (From Nathaniel Bacon’s An Historicall Discourse of the Uniformity of the Government of England.)

Here are some later OED examples: “the multiple development of malignant tumors” (1906); “the speed flash, also known as multiple or electronic flash” (1950); “a multiple fracture of the femur” (1984); “a multiple dovetail joint” (1990).

These days the adjective more often modifies plural nouns, a usage first recorded in the early 1660s. In this sense, the OED says, the adjective means “many” or “plural.”

The earliest sighting in the OED is from a treatise on taxes published by William Petty in 1662: “Why should not the solvent thieves and cheats be rather punished with multiple restitutions than death, pillory, whipping, &c.?”

And here are a few 19th- and 20th-century uses, again from the OED: “multiple ruffs of cloth” (1834); “multiple solutions” (1879); “multiple factors” (1915); “multiple bookings” (1949); “multiple injuries” (1980); “multiple taxes” (2000).

Standard dictionaries generally define the usage today as “more than one” or “many.”

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard dictionary, defines it as “numerous.” However, the examples the dictionary cites use the term as broadly as journalists do—as an inexact number ranging from “several” to “many.”

Here’s a sampling: “multiple locations,” “multiple medals,” “multiple perspectives,” “multiple elements,” “multiple boards,” “multiple medications,” “multiple questions,” “multiple sites,” “multiple counts,” “multiple movies,” and “multiple sources.”

In conclusion, we agree with you that “multiple” sounds strange in some contexts (especially “multiple people”), but we’ll probably just have to get used to it.

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