Q&A: Myriad possibilities!

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, the possibilities are myriad…

Q: Hi, can we try something different this week?
A: What do you suggest? Being succinct?
Q: Haha, very funny. No. I've been on YouTube watching ‘reaction videos' – they're very popular. You can watch other people as THEY watch everything from Star Wars trailers to Game of Thrones episodes.
A: Why?
Q: I'll ask the questions around here. So this week, I'm changing my Q to R (for reaction). The topic: how to use “myriad” correctly.
A: Um. Okay.
R: Oooh it's starting.
A: So “myriad” is a word that has controversy on two sides. There is the question of whether it should have “a” before it and the other question of whether it should be followed by “of” or not.
R: Boring.
A: In explaining these, it's worth noting that there are a lot of opinions here. There are purists who believe the one set of rules are king. And others who are happy to throw those rules out the window.
R: OMG! I can't believe that just happened. That rule just went out that window! I did NOT see that coming.
A: So, let's enter the fray with the first point. Most purists suggest that “myriad” should only be used as an adjective – to describe something innumerable or with a great many aspects. For example: We have myriad opportunities for success in this battle. However, they may be surprised to learn that “myriad” was actually born a noun.
R: I knew it! I had heard theories, but this confirms it. What joy.
A: “Myriad” is not some bastard child of various languages. It was born a pure noun, from the Greek “myrias” – originally meaning “10,000”, but later settling for “an indefinitely large number”. It first appeared in the middle of the 16th century.
R: Oooh, I love a good origin story.
A: As a noun, it can be a plural and can also have “a” in front of it. This equates it nicely to the word “dozen” for 12.
R: Dozen seem similar to me. Haha.
A: So just as you could say “the Queen has a dozen ships”, you could also say “the Queen has a myriad ships” to mean a large number.
R: I'd never say that. This is starting to drag on.
A: But this is where the purists suggest that because the noun acts like an adjective anyway, why not just say “the Queen has myriad ships”. Many publications (Fairfax, for example) and style guides agree that this adjective form is the only way to go.
R: Spoiler alert: publications love using as few words as possible.
A: However, the noun formats have managed to secure a large slice of the people pie, due to their more conversational feel. So for example, “the Queen has a myriad of ships” or even “the Queen has myriads of ships”.
R: That's a lot of ships.
A: Plenty of famous writers have used the noun forms “myriads” or “a myriad of” in their writings. But it can also sound very poetic to describe the adjective form as in “the myriad stars in the night sky”. So there is a strong argument to suggest that the world is wide enough for both of them.
R: Okay, but I hope they reveal which is the true ruler.
A: In summary, we recommend using the adjective form where possible (“the Queen has myriad ships”), but the noun form is NOT wrong – it's in all the dictionaries. If you do use it however (e.g. “the Queen has a myriad of ships”), be prepared for attacks!
R: Epic! That was good advice. I'm giving a thumbs up for this one.
A: And as usual, if it feels clunky, simply rewrite the sentence!
Q: It's me, I'm back. What did I miss?
A: You missed myriad learning opportunities.
Q: Did you know that “myriad” is an anagram of “pyramid”?
A: Ummm… where's the P?
Q: It's running down your leg! Hahaha.
A: Oh dear.

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you'd like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!

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