The maps, or the sequences, are just the start of many lines of research, polyphiloprogenitive, multiply multiple genome projects. (source, Nature magazine)

The part "polyphiloprogenitive, multiply multiple genome projects" does not seem to follow the first part of the sentence. Is this wrong grammar?

  • I'm not really convinced polyphiloprogenitive is a valid word. I think the writer is just being rather "whimsical" about how exactly he expresses the idea that the existing maps/sequences represent just the tip of the iceberg - many, many, many, many genome projects. – FumbleFingers Mar 10 '14 at 18:34
  • 1
    I think the awkwardness comes from the author using multiply as an adverb but the reader analyzing it as a verb. It's a terrible garden-path sentence. – Bradd Szonye Mar 10 '14 at 20:46
  • So "research", "polyphiloprogenitive", "multiply multiple" are three qualifiers to "genome projects"? – qazwsx Mar 10 '14 at 22:17
  • I'd read "polyphiloprogenitive" and "multiply multiple" as two qualifiers to "genome projects", and I'd read that whole phrase, "poly... ... projects" as being in apposition to "many lines of research". – Andreas Blass Mar 10 '14 at 23:42

The word polyphiloprogenitive overwhelms everything in its vicinity and brings readers to a stop, from which they may find it difficult to get restarted. It's quite natural in such a situation for humble readers to blame themselves for lacking the necessary familiarity with the intimidating term to come to grips with the rest of the passage. But such self-blame is not always justified.

According to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, polyphiloprogenitive (which has been around since at least 1919) has a single, simple definition: "extremely prolific." Let's try replacing the intimidating word in the sentence with its less scary definition (and include the preceding sentence in the article for context), and then see how it looks:

But we knew from the start the genome project would never be complete. The maps, or the sequences, are just the start of many lines of research, extremely prolific, multiply multiple genome projects.

To my mind, the second sentence of the excerpt is very nearly gibberish—an especially unfortunate circumstance given that it appears in a column that takes scientists to task for using "sloppy language" and for failing "to get more fully and precisely into the proper language of genetics." To make the OP's quotation coherent, you'd have to alter its back end extensively, along these lines:

But we knew from the outset that the genome project would never be complete. The maps, or the sequences, are just the start of many lines of research, as the progeny of this extremely prolific source of research opportunities will quickly multiply in the form of multiple subsidiary genome projects.

Considering that this article was published on 15 February 2001, I thought that perhaps the author's wording got garbled at some point after print publication, as sometimes happens to online articles when a Website changes its formatting and source code as part of a major site redesign (as must surely have occurred at Nature.com more than once in the 14 years since this article first appeared). But I haven't been able to find any online evidence that this happened, and I don't have access to a print copy of the relevant issue of Nature to check the original.

As to the OP's question about whether the quoted sentence makes sense as written, I don't think it does. Sometimes an emperor who looks naked to the unsophisticated eye really is naked.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.