What is it with ‘multiple’ these days?  I can scarcely open my eyes without being assaulted by this ugly and unnecessary coinage:

“…parts of these [Airbus] wings move between the UK and the EU multiple times before final assembly”.

“…compliance to requirements will need to be checked multiple times throughout the development and support life cycle….”

 This mutation is fairly recent and, strangely, thrives amid plenty of plain words that do the job better: some, several, many. These are not particularly precise either, but a good deal more so than multiple. So why the sudden outbreak?

Perhaps the term’s breeding success is down to its very vagueness. As an adjective it really only means ‘more than one’. In other words, it covers every number in the universe from two to infinity – and beyond! So it hardly refines your meaning, but rather smudges it. Perhaps that’s the point.

As so often, it probably started in the board room. Company A has three customers but would like to leave you with the impression it has three thousand. ‘Multiple clients’ will do the deceitful job just fine.

But if this infection started among the corporations, it is now a superbug in the hospital plumbing of business writing and journalism more broadly. As MSNBC tweeted last September: “Multiple people wounded in shooting at Pennsylvania judge’s office; gunman dead.” This example is particularly grim: not just its subject matter, but the thoughtless tautology of “multiple people”.  As an editor I usually find I can simply delete the word without any damage to meaning – as you could here.

Of course not everyone uses the term because they have an agenda. Perhaps they imagine it makes them sound important – though it really doesn’t. Often it’s simply because they’ve read it so many times they don’t stop to think. Even the admirably plain-spoken investor Terry Smith has succumbed: “if they have been in existence as quoted companies for multiple decades the chances are it is because they are relatively successful businesses.” Here again, multiple is an easy cut.

And of course, there are a few proper uses – sclerosis and orgasm spring to mind. But as a rule, this word is best avoided.