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Myriad

Q From Amy McDowell (dozens of other subscribers asked much the same question): You recently wrote, ‘It’s easy to find a myriad of examples’. It’s my understanding that it should be simply ‘myriad examples’. Please check?

A I’ve done that, and I’m still sure I’m right.

To start with, this flood of queries puzzled me, but eventually I worked out that the questioners knew myriad only as an adjective. Some reported that they had been taught in college to use the word only in that way, meaning “extremely great in number” and had been corrected when they tried to use it as a noun.

A search online found a similar question had been asked of Barbara Wallraff, in her Word Court series. Both she and I are at a loss to know how this mistaken view might have grown up. Myriad is often used as a noun, and indeed was one in English for two centuries before it began to be used adjectivally. The original sense, from the classical Greek, was of a count of ten thousand, but it has long since in English come to mean an unspecified very large number or a countless multitude.

A search online for the noun found approximately that number of examples. The Oxford English Dictionary has a dozen citations from 1609 onwards, the last being from a British newspaper of 1987. An archive of recent newspapers supplied 29,000 examples, top of the list when I did the search being this sentence from the Miami Herald of 22 February 2007: “Coordinating airline schedules is a complicated business that requires exquisite timing of planes, crews, passengers and a myriad of other things.” An interview with Tony Blair in the Observer on 3 March 2007 contained this comment: “Blair declined to offer more endorsements of [Gordon] Brown, but referred back to a ‘myriad of complimentary things I have said in the past’ about him.”

The only one of my style guides to address the matter is Garner’s Modern American Usage. Bryan Garner says, “Myriad is more concise as an adjective <myriad drugs> than as a noun <a myriad of drugs> ... But the fact that the adjective is handier than the noun doesn’t mean the latter is sub-standard. ... The choice is a matter of style, not correctness.”

My case rests.

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Page created 10 Mar. 2007

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Last modified: 10 March 2007.