By Charlotte Brewer
Charlotte Brewer is professor of English language and literature at Oxford University and an expert on dictionaries. Charlotte provides the following reflection on the meaning of ‘plurality’ today.
In deciding whether or not to allow Murdoch to buy more shares in BSkyB, the regulatory bodies have been asked to assess whether there would be ‘a sufficient plurality of persons with control of the media enterprises’ serving the UK audience. How do we decide what that phrase means? Lawyers will have two main frameworks to use to work this out: first, how terms like ‘plurality’, ‘sufficient plurality’, and ‘media enterprises’ have been used and interpreted in relevant legislation in the past; and second, how such terms are used in everyday language. In this case, past legislation and court judgments are not terribly helpful, mainly because the meaning of ‘plurality’ in particular has not been properly thrashed out. Does this word mean ‘more than one’ (e.g. as little as two or three)? Or does it mean ‘a large number or quantity’, e.g. ‘a multitude’? If the first interpretation is OK, then that would seem to permit a Murdoch buy-out. But if the legislators intended the second sense, that would appear to represent an obstacle to the bid. (Of course, the word ‘sufficient’ has to come into play too, but let’s stick with ‘plurality’ for the moment).
So what does everyday language tell us about the meaning of ‘plurality’, and how can we find out? To answer this question it is not a bad idea to turn to a recently published and reputable dictionary of contemporary English. Dictionaries today arrive at their definitions through painstaking analysis of linguistic corpora—databases of spoken and written English collected from a carefully determined range of sources—which provide a representative sample of contemporary English across its various genres and forms. In other words, dictionary-makers do not prescribe how we should use language, but instead set out to describe, as accurately and as fully as possible, how language is used in practice.
A good dictionary today provides various types of information to help us understand and interpret its definitions: a list of synonyms, for example, or grammatical information about how a word is used in the language, or sample phrases to illustrate how a word is used in context. And it is these which are very helpful in deciding what ‘plurality’ means. Looking at a range of good quality desk dictionaries published by Collins, Chambers, Longman and Oxford University Press, the evidence is overwhelming that unless we are talking about subject areas like grammar or arithmetic, where plural (vs singular) has a technical sense (i.e. ‘more than one’), ‘plurality’ means:
- a large number (Collins Dictionary of the English Language, 2010)
- a large number or variety (The Chambers Compact Dictionary, 2005)
- a large number of different things (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 2009)
- a large number of people or things (Concise Oxford Dictionary, 2009, and Oxford Dictionary of English, 2010)
Typical synonyms suggested for ‘plurality’ are ‘(wide) variety, diversity, range, multitude, multiplicity, wealth, profusion, abundance, plethora, host. Informal: load, stack, heap, mass’ (all from the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus of 2007).
What can we conclude from this? That ordinary folks would say that a plurality means ‘a large number’. The only reason for thinking otherwise would be if those using the term gave explicit notice they intended something different. No such warning appears in the legislation. ‘Sufficient’ plurality (or ‘multiplicity’, ‘diversity’, ‘profusion’)? That’s up to Mr Hunt.