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'Including' everything but the kitchen sink

Is a workhorse preposition subtly shifting its meaning, the Monitor's language columnist wonders.

Some musings were mused not long ago on a copy-editing listserv I subscribe to on the use of including.

If it's meant merely to introduce an example, why does including appear so often with the phrase "but not limited to" trailing afterward? And on the other hand, why do some people seem to feel that including requires them to detail all the elements of the set they're discussing? This impulse leads to sentences like this: "They have five children, including a set of 5-year-old identical triplet sons and two daughters."

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Speaking of introducing an example: Here's a recent headline: "Obama Administration Considering Range of Options Regarding Arizona Immigration Law – Including Suing to Block It."

In this case, including has the effect of an intensifier: "and even." Several options are under consideration, but the possible lawsuit is the one mentioned specifically.

Statement and elaboration, statement and elaboration: That pattern is one of the building blocks of the explanatory prose that fills the pages of what we used to call the public prints. Include is a verb, but a number of dictionaries identify including as a preposition. Like conjunctions and other prepositions, the humble including serves as the mortar.

A writer always struggles to balance comprehensiveness and conciseness. Judicious use of including can serve as an expression of the Pareto Principle (vital few, trivial many): It helps a writer call out the one or two most important elements, as in the lawsuit example above, while giving some hint of the broader picture ("range of options").

All Gaul is divided into three parts, Julius Caesar famously wrote, and then he straightforwardly listed them. But today everything has more than three parts, and all of them seem to have names longer and more complicated than Belgae, Aquitani, and Celts. How much explaining can we do?

The "including but not limited to" formulation is a bit of creeping legalese. I've just done a Google News search of the phrase and seven of the Top 10 hits appeared to be press releases from companies regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. One of these, from a pharmaceutical manufacturer, used the phrase twice in one paragraph. That's not belt-and-­suspenders language; that's two belts and two sets of suspenders.

In legal writing, the battle may be lost. The rest of us, though, would do well to resist the urge to decorate including with verbiage it doesn't need.

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And maybe we should feel freer to use etc., instead of "including A, B, and C." Maybe I shouldn't say this. Etc. has long been in disrepute among journalists. Many of them avoid it throughout their careers. The knock on etc., is that it's imprecise.

Yes, exactly: "A, B, C, etc." conveys that A, B, and C are the most important elements, but not the whole. The "etc." there functions like the little crunchy bits of fried batter on a plate of fish and chips – they're not the main item but tend to make the plate look more full.

Use of "including" in instances like the "five children" isn't a capital offense. But a careful writer will consider simpler options: "They have 5-year-old identical triplet sons and two daughters, too."

And as for "including, but not limited to," that can be expected to continue as long as there are lawyers who get paid by the hour – and scribes who get paid by the word.