Three little words
The great Nat King Cole said it best:
Three little words
Oh what I’d give for that wonderful phrase
To hear those three little words
That’s all I’d live for the rest of my days
And what I feel in my heart
They tell sincerely
No other words can tell it half so clearly
He was talking, of course, about the words “as well as”.* So simple, so common, so often misused.
Here’s what you need to know:
“As well as” is not the same as “and”
Here’s an INCORRECT use of “as well as”:
Nat King Cole played the piano, the organ as well as the melodica.
“As well as” has been used to replace “and” in the list of three instruments – a very common mistake.
Here’s an easy test you can use to see whether “as well as” has been used correctly: Delete “as well as” and the phrase that follows it, and see whether the sentence still makes grammatical sense.
Let’s try it with the example above:
Nat King Cole played the piano, the organ.
It doesn’t make sense anymore, so we know the “as well as” was wrong.
“As well as” introduces something the reader already knows
“As well as” is used to signify something that the reader already knows or assumes – something that, therefore, is not the key thing the sentence is trying to communicate.
It’s a way of saying, “Not only this, but also that.” As well as this thing you already know, here’s something you don’t.
Here’s another version of the sentence above:
Nat King Cole played the piano and the organ as well as the melodica.
Does that seem correct? Let’s test it by deleting the phrase beginning “as well as”:
Nat King Cole played the piano and the organ.
It makes grammatical sense, so it passes that test. But we need to make sure it’s conveying the right message, too.
When we say “Nat King Cole played the piano and the organ as well as the melodica”, we’re implying something like this: “We all know Nat King Cole played the melodica, but did you know he also played the piano and the organ?”
In reality, it’s unlikely anyone would say this. Most people know Nat King Cole played the piano; the fact that he also played the organ and the melodica is much more remarkable.
A more correct sentence, then, would be this:
Nat King Cole played the melodica and the organ as well as the piano.
This sentence passes both parts of the test:
(1) It still makes sense when we delete the phrase beginning “as well as”: Nat King Cole played the melodica and the organ.
(2) The phrase beginning “as well as” introduces information that is of secondary importance. The main goal of the sentence is to inform us that Nat King Cole played the melodica and the organ. The fact he played the piano is just there for context, since it’s something the reader probably knows already.
Here are some more examples in which “as well as” has been used correctly. You’ll notice that they pass both parts of our two-pronged test:
Nat King Cole’s album Cole Español was popular in Latin America as well as the United States.
(Since Nat King Cole was American, it’s safe to assume his albums were popular in the US. The remarkable thing is that this album also found popularity in Latin America.)
I like listening to Nat King Cole as well as contemporary music.
(Since I am young and cool, it makes sense that I listen to contemporary music. The interesting thing is that I also listen to Nat King Cole.)
Natalie Cole was inspired by Aretha Franklin as well as her father, Nat King Cole.
(It goes without saying that Natalie Cole was inspired by her father. Here’s someone else she was inspired by.)
If you can understand why those three examples are correct, you’ve got the basics down. There are just a few more usage points to remember.
Using “as well as” with verbs
In the examples above, we looked at phrases where “as well as” was followed by nouns: as well as the piano, as well as the United States, as well as her father, etc.
When the phrase in question contains a verb, we use the gerund – that is, the form of the verb with “-ing” at the end.
These are correct:
As well as releasing dozens of albums, Nat King Cole had his own TV show.
Nat King Cole’s songs, as well as inspiring new generations, are still popular in their own right.
Nat King Cole was involved in the civil rights movement as well as playing music.
When to use a comma
This might already be apparent from the examples above, but I’ll spell it out anyway. The “as well as” phrase will fall at either the beginning, middle or end of a sentence. If it’s at the beginning or the middle, you should use a comma to mark it off. If it’s at the end, no comma is needed.
Singular or plural?
Remember the rule we spoke about above, that the sentence should still make sense when the “as well as” phrase is deleted?
This is an important rule to remember when it comes to case agreement – that is, whether to use the singular or plural.
Which of the following two sentences do you think is correct?
Nat King Cole, as well as Duke Ellington, was one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
Nat King Cole, as well as Duke Ellington, were two of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
If you think the first one is correct, you’re right. You can confirm this by deleting the “as well as” phrase and seeing which one makes sense:
Nat King Cole was one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
Nat King Cole were two of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
In a nutshell
“As well as” is not the same as “and”.
“As well as” is used to introduce information that the reader already knows or assumes: “As well as this thing you already know, here’s something new.”
If the “as well as” phrase is deleted, the sentence should still make grammatical sense.
When “as well as” is followed by a verb, use the “-ing” form of the verb.
Only mark the “as well as” phrase off with a comma if it appears at the beginning or middle of the sentence.
*He was not.