Deplorable Plurals

by Mark L. Levinson

Back in the 1960s, Professor D. David Bourland Jr. proposed E-Prime, a variant form of English without the verb “to be.”  Supposedly it would force people to explain what they meant rather than lazily applying generalized names and opinions to unique phenomena.  If you can’t get away with saying “That puppy is cute” (because “is” is a form of “to be”), you’re obliged to think harder and in the end you will likely come up with something more precise, and more insightful, about the puppy, your feelings, or both.

As far as I know, no one has proposed a variant form of English without the conjunction “and,” although you might say that “and” violates the essential uniqueness of each phenomenon.  When Burton Lane writes “I like potato chips, moonlight, and motor trips,” we find humor in the very grouping of things that belong to different contexts.  But what things don’t?

While not under attack from professors, “and” sometimes suffers potshots from writers who find it overused.  They substitute “along with,” “in addition to,” “not to mention,” “as well as,” or “besides,” without realizing that each of those substitutes has its own connotation and none of them has the power of creating a plural.

“He carried a beeper as well as a cell phone” carries the implication “although that’s more than you might expect.”  If one is more expectable than the other, then the less expectable comes first:  “To his son’s bar mitzva, he brought an iPod as well as a prayer book,” not “To his son’s bar mitzva, he brought a prayer book as well as an iPod.”  And if what he brought is the subject of the sentence, then an iPod, as well as a prayer book, is what he brought.  Not “are.”  The iPod is the subject, the prayer book is parenthetical.

What about the following sentence, from the Jerusalem Post?  “Although it concentrates on the lives of a group of flawed characters, it’s their very humanity (and their charm) that bring home the tragedy more than any depiction of idealized martyrs would.”  Should that be “bring” or “brings”?  

It would have been a good place not to use an “and.”  A sentence like “It’s their very humanity (along with their charm) that brings home the tragedy” would have been fine.  As is, though, the parentheses try to remove the charm from the subject of the verb while the “and” tries to include it.  I believe that the “and” wins — the purpose of punctuation is to aid words, not to overrule them — and the sentence is correct; or if there’s anything incorrect about it, what’s incorrect is the use of parentheses.  The “and” still makes a plural.

Not only are “as well as” and the like incapable of creating a plural, they are incapable of wrapping up a list.  “He brought a prayer book, an iPod, and a sandwich” is correct.  “He brought a prayer book, an iPod, as well as a sandwich” is deplorable.

In a long list, a writer has license to omit the “and”:  “He brought a prayer book, an iPod, a sandwich, cigars, a newspaper, an umbrella, confetti.”  The omission is a rarely-used device, but it’s legitimate; so the question arises whether, since the “and” isn’t compulsory, one of those and-like expressions is admissible:  “He brought a prayer book, an iPod, a sandwich, cigars, a newspaper, an umbrella, as well as confetti.”  Isn’t that just like saying “He brought a prayer book, an iPod, a sandwich, cigars, a newspaper, and an umbrella, as well as confetti”?

Theoretically yes, but only theoretically.  In practice, if you use an “as well as” where we would expect an “and,” readers will think you meant it to take the place of the “and,” not to follow an implicit “and” that was omitted a couple of words earlier.

Does any word other than “and” make two singulars into a plural?  I looked up “plus” on the Internet.  It wasn’t easy, but I found a relevant page — from Ian Johnston at Malaspina University-College, in British Columbia — and the advice there is to “be very careful with the word plus. Do not use it to mean and except in mathematical expressions (e.g., two plus two equals four).  Note that in such equations the verb is singular. Avoid plus to indicate joint action (that is, as a colloquial equivalent to and); instead use and or together with.

So I guess that “and” stands alone in its power to pluralize.  Any challengers?

Comments and questions are welcome:  ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.