Style Patrol: A Plethora of Plethoras | Live Culture

Style Patrol: A Plethora of Plethoras


Few readers may be aware of it, but in addition to writing movie reviews, I edit large sections of Seven Days. That means I spend a lot of time thinking (and lecturing, agonizing and grousing) about how writers use words, and how people in general use words these days.

Furthermore, I'm one of those weirdos who thinks arguing about style and usage is fun. (You better believe I ate up New Yorker copyeditor Mary Norris' "Confessions of a Comma Queen.") In that spirit, I present this monthly blog column devoted to style issues I've been noticing in our paper or elsewhere. (Am I using the vaguer word "issue" when I actually mean "problem"? Yes, like so many writers these days — but that's another issue.)

Feel free to comment, disagree and bring up style "issues" of your own — that's what this space is for.

Now to this week's topic: What exactly is a "plethora," and why do there seem to be so many of them in modern journalism?

Earlier this week, I came across the word "plethora" in this State of the Arts piece by Ethan de Seife. Here's the quote in context (you'll notice it's intact in the version that went to press):

Nearly a century ago, the father of composer Alvin Lucier played violin in the very first Dartmouth College jazz band, alongside a pianist, a drummer, two saxophonists and three — count 'em, three — banjo players. "That's too many banjos!" Lucier said with a laugh during a phone conversation with Seven Days.

Unfazed by that plethora of banjos, Lucier recently composed a musical work inspired by the 1918 photo of his father's band. 

I suggested replacing "plethora" with "overload" — why? Because I find the word plethora to be pretentious and overused: one of those words that made writers sound smart until it became wildly popular everywhere from Buzzfeed to your local high school newspaper.

Then I looked up plethora in my trusty (and rather old) Webster's and had a revelation I should have had long ago. From the Greek word for fullness, plethora does not mean "a great number" or "an abundance," as most people who use it seem to think. It is not another fancy word to use when you get tired of myriad. It actually means an excess or superfluity. If you say this summer offers "a plethora of superhero movies," you mean there are too many of them.

Given that definition, Ethan's usage of the word wasn't careless — it was accurate, and I kept it. After which he was kind enough to point me to the little scene from ¡Three Amigos! embedded above.

For the record, the current online Merriam-Webster gives "profusion" and "abundance" as additional synonyms for plethora. Is the dictionary bowing to common modern usage? The Grammarist suggests so. 

However, none of this changes my original point: Plethora is overused. And when a word is overused, it's often best to avoid it or stick to using it in the most precise and accurate way — so that it'll actually, you know, mean something.

I searched the Seven Days archives to see just how frequently we've been using and misusing plethora. Surprise, surprise, one of the first examples I found came from yours truly. Reviewing the movie Men, Women & Children last October, I wrote:

Given the plethora of plots, Reitman has no choice but to stay in the shallow end.

How could I resist that alliteration, right? Technically, the usage is correct: The movie has way too many plot strands. It's also the kind of pretentious, overblown film about which it felt appropriate to use a pretentious, overblown word. But it was still a pretty lazy word choice — guilty as charged.

Who else has been using plethora? I found it across a wide range of stories. (Note to writers: My intention is not to single anyone out for criticism, just to make us all more conscious of the words we use. You're all brilliant and handle being edited very well. [Insert abashed smiley emoticon.])

Here's a sampling of recent plethoras:

Visitors can journey back in time — from 800 BC to 400 AD — by viewing ancient marble sculptures, pottery, glassware and a plethora of artifacts that demonstrate those cultures' cult worship of Poseidon. (from Looking Ahead to 2015 Art Exhibits by Xian Chiang-Waren and Pamela Polston)

Members of the Vermont group don't know if the Center of Excellence they envision would be a single building or a concept. They picture a plethora of independent businesses developing to produce, test, experiment with, teach about and sell high-quality marijuana products. (from Entrepreneurial Dream Team Sets Sights on Marijuana by Terri Hallenbeck)

He [Andy Danforth of the Cooperative Development Institute] pointed to a plethora of success stories across the Connecticut River. (from Burlington's Most Affordable Neighborhood Is … For Sale by Alicia Freese)

Make that a cheeseburger and you’ll be offered a plethora of unusual combos — from Vermont cheddar with jalapeños to fontina with mushrooms to crumbled blue cheese with caramelized onions, local bacon and a fried farm egg. (from Snack Attack 2012 by Corin Hirsch)

There are many more (a plethora?), but you get the idea. Nine times out of 10, people use "a plethora" to mean "a whole bunch," with no implication that we might be suffering from a surfeit of ancient artifacts, marijuana-focused businesses, housing success stories or burger options.

Is it "wrong"? Usage changes over time, so not really. Is it still overused, to the extent that you should consider reaching for another word — such as "abundance" — instead? I think so.

Just please don't choose myriad.