Multiple Things

One of multiple results of an image search for “things” (Flickr/jojel)
One of multiple results of an image search for “things” (Flickr/jojel)

A few are more than a couple of, and some are even more. So I tell my students. “But how many more?” they ask, because when getting it wrong is so easy, as it is with a language you’re learning, you want to be careful.

But I’ve got no simple answer. A number more, or quite a number, or many. What imprecise indicators of numbers! And that handy, workable word number, which you can combine with a modifier to say a small number, a fair number, a huge number, and even an unimaginable number. An unreal number. Who can say exactly how many items we’re talking about with any of these phrases? Sticking to just a number of doesn’t aid in exactitude: several dictionaries define the phrase as “more than two but fewer than many: several.” So you shrug, and students frown, though the same vagueness exists in Spanish.

If we knew how many things we were talking about, we’d just say it, two or 10 or two dozen, because the problem isn’t the language, but not knowing. And to manage our ignorance we turn to this handful of broad labels that with their imprecision match our imprecise information. That’s what makes them perfect—this rough degree of accuracy for an unknown number, one that falls somewhere between a couple of and multitudes. Plus, they sound nice on the tongue, like a snatch of melody compared to the drum of numbers.

A very rough degree of accuracy comes with the word thing, which my uncle objected to. It was a lazy habit, he believed, to cast that word out like a wide net around kitchen implements, enticing ideas, activities, early morning thoughts, tools, tasks for the day, or what have you. My brother doesn’t like multiple to mean many. I don’t like impact as a verb. My editor doesn’t like there is when it’s used to indicate the fact or existence of a thing. My father objects to human as a noun. My mother wants the of in a couple of.

George Orwell might agree or not with our hang-ups, but he’d think language a good thing to quibble over. A lot is at stake, and we should care enough to get it right. No surprise then that people sometimes become disgusted when they can’t find a word to suit their need. Or that they get riled up about another’s word choice. And better to object to the other’s use of adverbial modifiers than to their personality, though that is often the next step. Even when it’s not, and our critic stops after calling out our word choice, we sometimes object to the objection to our word as if the objection were to us. Perhaps because adverbs are personality, they are your style, and, as the French writer Buffon said, style is the man.

My brother points out that had Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The world is full of multiple things” much would have been lost. We’d all be the poorer for it. And yet, with Stevenson behind that hypothetical line, I’d give it a chance, wondering about multiple and then wandering on to multiplicity to pause at the plicity of it. Soon I’d have skipped on to municipal, my own m-initialed bugbear. (Municipality instead of city? It’s a word that I can tolerate for special occasions, but not for everyday use. You’d not dress up for an everyday turn in the garden, only for a garden party.) From there it’s just a hop back to Stevenson, whose little boy speaker in a different poem, in bed at night, sets off, keeping close to “Armies and emperors and kings, / All carrying different kinds of things,” which he accompanies to the town (and not the municipality) of sleep, a place both mundane and essential.

That’s the charm of the simplest things: mundane and essential. Such is thing, in fact, and number. “The world is so full of a number of things, / I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” Especially when those things, a great number of them, a multiplicity, fun and free, are words. As my mother recently reminded my brother and me, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, and as I shall quote to my students on the first occasion, “Even in the mud and scum of things, / Something always, always sings.”

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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