3. Reading Obstacles 2: Multi-Use Words


A Word with Multiple Uses

A Word with Multiple Uses


It is easy to struggle in reading when a small familiar word is used in an unfamiliar way


Multi-use words is my name for small familiar words whose grammar and meaning can vary. For example, the word to is sometimes a preposition requiring a noun or -ing verb after it, as in Winter temperatures fall to zero, and sometimes the first part of a verb in the infinitive form, as in People like to talk (see 35. “to do” versus “to doing”). The verb HAVE can be used either by itself or in combination with another verb (see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE). And the conjunction whether can either introduce an indirect question or deny a condition (see 99. When to Use “whether … or …”). Sometimes such alternative uses can lead to a double meaning (see 182. Structures with a Double Meaning 2, #3).

My suspicion that multi-use words are a significant cause of reading difficulty comes from observing that problems reported by learners (as described in the articles section of this blog under the heading What can learners tell us about their reading problems?) seem to involve them particularly often. A possible explanation of why multi-use words cause problems is that unskilled readers will sometimes know only one of the different meanings/uses involved, and on meeting an unfamiliar use will assume it to be the familiar one, thus failing to recognise any linguistic reason why the text is not making sense.

The exercise below presents a variety of multi-use words that seem to be at the root of problems reported by learners to be difficult. 



How easily can you understand the following extracts? Can you spot the multi-use word in each (answers below)?


1. But civil war within the empire and mounting attacks by Vikings from without made the later years … unpropitious.

2. What is king and servant, after all, but one expression of the Paschal mystery?

3. There is general agreement that the human number 2 chromosome is the product of the fusion of two chimpanzee chromosomes with many other differences between the chromosome complements in the two species being due to … .

4. The most apt term could be determined or driven or focussed.

5. One can take suffering seriously without taking too much notice of what is happening around us.

6. It was a very popular event attended by some 98,000 spectators.

7. We have to get away from this assumption the industry can deliver everything everybody wants immediately.

8. Kids caught in the college rush more often than not work 70 hours or more a week.

9. The change could protect local government revenue from speeding fines.



1. The word without here is the one with an unusual meaning. It is the opposite not of with, but of within. Since within means “inside”, without here means “outside”. In terms of word classes, without used as the opposite of with is a preposition, but used as the opposite of within is an adverb. 

2. The multi-use word here is but. Normally used as a conjunction (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors), here it is a preposition meaning “except”. A related use is considered in the post 88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1.

3. The multi-use word here is with. One clue that it is not being used in the ordinary way is that after it there is not a noun by itself, but a noun (differences between …) acting as subject of an -ing verb (being). In general, with followed by a noun and -ing verb in this way means “while” when at the end of a sentence and “because” at the beginning. Thus, with … being … in 3 means “while … are …”. More on this use of with is in the posts 75. How to Avoid “Dangling” Participles and 88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1.

The word before with (fusion) also hinders comprehension, since it often goes before an ordinary with (the fusion [of x] with y), making the reader more likely to misinterpret the unusual with here. Another clue that an ordinary with cannot be present in 3 is that the two things needing to be mentioned with the word fusion – in this case two chimpanzee chromosomes – have both already been mentioned after of.

4. Here the problem is two different uses of the verb BE: combined or not combined with a following verb. In the first case, we say that BE is an “auxiliary” helping to form either a continuous tense or the passive voice, the following verb being in the participle form (see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun). When there is no combination with a following verb, we expect the next word to be a “complement”: a noun or adjective or equivalent (pronoun , gerund, to verb – see 119. BE before a “to” Verb) which relates back to the subject (see 113. Verbs that cannot be Passive).

In the example above, could be seems to be combined with the following verb determined, making a passive form. In fact, though, determined here means “the term determined“, making it noun-like rather than verb-like (many writers would put it in italics). A similar confusion involving BE and its following word is examined in the post 69. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong (2). The clues to discovering the right meaning are firstly the early mention of term (creating the expectation of being told what the term is), and secondly the lack of logic if could be determined is taken as a passive verb.

5. The key word here is too. Normally if we use it before an adjective or adverb it means something negative like “more than is good” (see 13. Hidden Negatives). Here, however, it just means “very” (as in the post 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much”), and there is no negativity about it at all. The reason for the changed meaning is the without in front, itself a negative word. The two negative words together perhaps cancel each other out in the normal way (see 9. Double Negatives).

6. The unusual use here is of some. Its normal meaning “a quantity of” would suggest, perhaps, that fewer than 98,000 spectators were present. Here, though, it just means “approximately”, so that the true spectator number could be higher as well as lower. Note that with this meaning the pronunciation must be like sum, and not with the normal weak vowel /∂/. More is in the post 95. Hedging 1.

7. The multi-use word here is not even mentioned; it is an “understood” that in two places: after assumption and everything. It is different in each case. The first is a conjunction associated with indirect statements (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”); the second is a relative pronoun (similar to which), as described in the Guinlist post 34. Relative Pronouns and Commas. A good way to discover which use a particular that has is to try and replace it with who or which: if either sounds possible, then that is a relative pronoun.

8. The problem word here is rush – not strictly a “multi-use” word, but just a word belonging to more than one grammatical class (noun and verb). So which is it here? In fact it must be a noun because the sentence is not otherwise grammatical (as defined in 100. What is a Grammar Error?). You have to understand that the college rush is a single phrase meaning “the rushing that people do at college”. The word college is hence being used like an adjective (describing another noun – see 38. Nouns Used like Adjectives) instead of being the subject of a verb. The confusion of this sentence is perhaps exacerbated by more often than not, an idiomatic phrase meaning “more than 50% of the time”.

9. The multi-use word here is the preposition from. Prepositions and their following noun can add to the meaning of either a noun placed immediately before them, so that they are like an adjective, or of a nearby verb, so that they are like an adverb (for more, see 53. “As”, “Like” and “Such As” and 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions). Both of these possibilities exist together when the preposition comes directly after the object of a verb (see 124. Structures with a Double Meaning 1, #2).

In sentence 9, does from speeding fines add to the verb could protect (saying what the protection is from), or its object noun revenue (saying where that comes from)? In fact, the meaning is the latter: that speeding fines are where the revenue comes from, and no mention is being made of what this revenue needs to be protected from. The only clue to this interpretation is that it is more logical.


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