A student brought to me recently two sentences from Haruki Murakami’s short story “The Seventh Man.” He was unclear, he said, why the author would use the plural noun waves in one sentence and then the singular noun wave in another, when both sentences had to do with the same scene, two boys looking out onto the Pacific Ocean from shore. Here are the two passages, which occur about six paragraphs apart:
The waves that had approached me were as unthreatening as waves can be—a gentle washing of the sandy beach…. The wave crashed on to the beach, shattering into a million leaping waves that flew through the air and plunged over the dyke where I stood.
My student’s question was primarily grammatical, not literary, and had to do with the way the number of a noun, singular or plural, can change what readers see as they build up mental images with the words a writer has chosen. He knew, of course, that Murakami’s story was about a typhoon and “a huge wave that nearly swept me away,” as the opening character says of his childhood experience, but he could not see why the author would have referred to a body of water, the ocean, first as a multiplicity of things, the waves that had approached me, and then later as a singular entity, the wave crashed on to the beach. Was the water one thing or was it not?
Whether we choose a singular or plural noun depends not simply on the object we have manifestly in view, whether that object is literally before us or merely imaginatively so; it depends also on how we conceive the meaning of the object we are referring to. If, for example, you were thinking of lighting up the fireplace on a cold night, someone might tell you to use that paper over there to get a fire started; one would less likely tell you to use those papers over there—unless the intention was also to suggest the miscellany of the pile: old newspapers, advertising, junk mail. A plural noun will not only multiply an object, but differentiate between the multiplicities.
So in Murakami’s story. The author’s first reference to waves was meant to multiply what really can’t be multiplied: the substance we call water, the ocean in his story. A wave does not exist, strictly, outside the body of water of which it is a part. We can’t catch and cage a wave as we might an animal, which is a part of its environment in a way quite different from the way a wave is a part of the ocean. But by making the noun plural, the author has suggested the idea of separateness, that each slight enlargement of the ocean water had the intention of gently washing the beach. The boys, he means to say, were in the company of friends.
But when shortly thereafter he writes the singular noun wave (as he had done too in the first sentence of the story), the author’s intention changed from pointing to the separateness of the waves to singling out the individuality of one of them—some one thing with malign intent. This one wave strove to crash on to the beach, but in doing so it then multiplied itself, because it shattered into a million leaping waves, each with the same destructive design. This change from singular noun in the main clause to a plural noun (the antecedent of the pronoun that) in the subordinate clause propels the sentence. And if we juxtapose the two sentences, as we have above, we can see how the author has changed his (and our) conception of the phenomenon: from the plural waves that had approached to the singular the wave crashed and back again to a million leaping waves that flew. From multiplicity to individuality to multiplied individuality.
My student’s close reading reminds us that writing involves our perceptions. Just what is it that we are saying something about? This question what is it? is the bedrock of precision, and precision is the essential requirement of clear writing.