A myriad of misconceptions (Well, just one, really)

I was reading a New York Times article about Obama’s budget when I saw this sentence: “Mr. Obama aims to move workers into the first category (of college graduates) by increasing federal financial aid and simplifying the myriad of aid programs.”

I thought, “A-ha! An error I can write about.” I thought that myriad is properly an adjective meaning “countless” and not a noun meaning “a great number,” and that it should be used this way: “simplifying the myriad aid programs.”

But when I went to start looking for supporting evidence, I discovered that this was another “rule that isn’t.”

Garner’s Modern English Usage says that while “myriad is more concise as an adjective … the mere fact that the adjective is handier than the noun doesn’t mean the latter is substandard. The noun (ca. 1555) has been with us more than 200 years longer than the adjective (ca. 1791), and the choice is a question of style, not correctness.”

Other reference books agree. Merriam Webster Online: “The noun myriad has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton (plural myriads) and Thoreau (a myriad of), and it continues to occur frequently in reputable English. There is no reason to avoid it.”

The American Heritage Dictonary:

In the 19th century (myriad) began to be used in poetry as an adjective, as in myriad men. Both usages in English are acceptable, as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Myriad myriads of lives.” This poetic, adjectival use became so well entrenched generally that many people came to consider it as the only correct use. In fact, both uses in English are parallel with those of the original ancient Greek. The Greek word murias, from which myriad derives, could be used as either a noun or an adjective, but the noun murias was used in general prose and in mathematics while the adjective murias was used only in poetry.

The Greek word murias referred to above is ancient Greek for 10,000. According to the OED, it also had the non-literal meaning of “countless” in ancient Greek, but that was “poetic and rare.” Myriad came into English from the post-classical Latin myriades (plural) also meaning “multiples of ten thousand, a countless number.”

11 thoughts on “A myriad of misconceptions (Well, just one, really)

  1. Clare Bohn says:

    I did the same investigation years ago, except I thought it was an error to use it as an adjective.

  2. Interesting. A friend told me off a few years ago for using the word (adjectively) too much in my blog. Looking back at some columns I used to write for BBC online, I was using the word far too much at the time – my editor should have picked me up on it.

    The old argument with the friend arose again recently. I wish I’d seen this post beforehand, as I was adamantly labouring under the same misconception. I stand corrected now – though I still don’t like to see it used as a noun. Ugh.

  3. Just the kind of post I was looking for. I appreciated the supporting evidence. :)

  4. SATPrepNY says:

    Very helpful! I am in the midst of proofreading a vocabulary workbook and needed to clarify this point exactly.

  5. Dan says:

    Thanks for the plethora of good information!

  6. I would have expected a myriad of comments on this post!

  7. Kent Craig says:

    Don’t believe everything you read, since only about half the myriad articles are accurate.

  8. Edmund says:

    Ha, I just did the same thing and that’s why I googled it and found you!
    A myriad of thanks for clarifying.

  9. useful post, even several years on! thx.

  10. madge says:

    and again useful. i commented on someone’s use of it as a noun (which is ugly reading to me) so i was interested to see it does have application as both noun and adjective though i prefer the elegance of the latter use

  11. Brad says:

    How many aid programs are there really? It’s supposed to mean innumerable or perhaps millions. Not dozens or even hundreds.

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