A press release has this headline: “Bamboo leaf extract Finds Its Way Into Products Ranging From Shampoo to Cosmetics to Candles.” A business proposal says that a new store “offers everything from clothing to toys to computers.” Does this mean there’s bamboo leaf extract in fruit juice and plant fertilizer? Does the store sell boogie boards and foie gras, too?
It’s hard to know since these aren’t ranges at all – they’re what the Washington Post's Bill Walsh calls "false ranges." A range should have some sort of continuum – a sequence or progression – such as “the restaurant serves everything from hors d'oeuvres to dessert.” We understand this to mean it serves every course. You want an amuse bouche, you got it.
What’s more, when we use the phrase “everything from,” it excludes nothing. So though “everything from” works fine when used with a true range, as in the restaurant example, it doesn’t work in the case of the store that “sells everything from clothing to toys to computers.” If that was true, the store would offer at least one of everything in the world (talk about a superstore), and I’m not even sure our pals at Wal-Mart could claim that.
What we usually mean when we use a false range is “as varied as,” “as diverse as,” or “an assortment that includes,” among other phrases. It’s not that bamboo leaf extract is finding its way into products ranging from shampoo to cosmetics to candles, but that it’s finding its way into products as varied as shampoo, cosmetics, and candles.
Next time you find yourself using the phrase “ranges from” or “everything from,” think about what comes between the two ends of your range. If you can’t picture what’s there, then you’re not home on the range.
Note: Aside from the patent silliness of saying a store sells everything from air fresheners to software, or whatever, it’s also just a really lazy way of writing. The best writing is precise, dynamic, specific, illustrative, fresh. Falling back on stock phrases like “everything from” indicates to readers that you, Mr. or Ms. Writer, have given up, don’t care enough to really think about the information you’re passing on, and don’t care if your audience has a robust reading experience or not. Avoid false ranges and your writing will be more truthful.