When to cut 'both'

Here’s a word that makes me all chop-happy when I edit: “both.”

I comes up a lot in sentences like this one: “The hospital provides a supportive work environment for both doctors and nurses to provide superior patient care.”

 That “both” is, technically, just fine. It’s used correctly, of course. But it has one drawback. And when you weigh that drawback against the benefits of this “both,” I see no reason to leave it. 

The drawback is that “both,” when immediately followed by a plural noun, might momentarily be construed to be modifying that noun only. In other words, a someone looking at the phrase “both doctors and nurses” might first read it as “both doctors” and wonder which two doctors you’re talking about.

Granted, they wouldn’t be confused for long. It only takes a split second to realize that “both” is modifying the whole noun phrase “doctors and nurses.” But if your goal is optimum clarity, precision, and economy of words — which mine usually is when I’m editing — you have to question that “both.”

 Does it really add anything that offsets its drawbacks? Not in this sentence. “The hospital provides a supportive work environment for doctors and nurses” says it all just as well with fewer words. So I would chop “both” out of the sentence without hesitation.  

Writers use “both” more often than needed because, in spoken English, it can add some emphasis. It can say: Wow. Not just doctors but even nurses have a good gig here. But in print it doesn’t always have the same effect. Readers can’t always “hear” the way the word sounds in the writer’s mind. So “both” can do more harm than good.  

Sometimes “both” can achieve the desired effect in print. Used well it can drive home that “wow” point quite well — even before a plural noun it doesn’t modify alone. That’s why I weigh the merits of “both” on a case-by-case basis.  

But my simple rule of thumb is: If “both” isn’t adding anything to the sentence and it comes before a plural noun that isn’t its sole partner, “both” is an extra word we can do without. 

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