Tuesday, October 07, 2014

When prescriptivism scrapes the railing: plethora

I love the Testy Copy Editors blog overseen by Phil Blanchard. It's one of my daily go-tos.

But occasionally, as is always going to happen at places that ruminate over usage and other editorial matters, the danger is that things take on a "get off my lawn" tone. It happens in this space too, regrettably, though I try to avoid it.

So from TCE today comes this:
Shannon Serpette of Henry is our new copy editor. She comes to the BCR with a plethora of writing experience. Her smiling face is a great addition to our department, and she’s also going to continue doing some writing. If you get a phone call from Shannon or have the opportunity to chat with her, please help us welcome her into the BCR family.
(Bureau County Republican, Princeton, Ill.)

Once Shannon is through her probation, she can put on her big smile and tell the boss to look up the meaning of “plethora,” which the boss probably thought was a compliment.
 And, true, the classic definition of plethora means an overabundance, an excess, of something.

Bryan Garner, still considered the leading authority on American usage, hews to that side of the word, though his latest volume, now at the ripe old age of 5, is starting to age a bit in these digital times when usage changes have gone from glacial to, at least, climate change proportions.*

So posts like TCE's need to acknowledge that maybe some change has crept into the conversation. No less than the Oxford Dictionaries is now suggesting usage has changed.

usage: Strictly, a plethora is not just an abundance of something, it is an excessive amount. However, the new, looser sense is now so dominant that it must be regarded as part of standard English.

We must not become so pedantic that we don't stop and take a deep breath before pulling the trigger.

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* While Garner says, "Although W11 [Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed 2003)] seems to countenance this meaning, it is unrecorded in the OED and in most other dictionaries. And it represents and unfortunate degeneration of sense."

But things change. Here is the latest entry from the Oxford English Dictionary online (this is the big boy, available only through very expensive subscription, not the slimmer sibling I linked to above):

Usu. with of. Originally in pejorative sense: an excessive supply, an overabundance; an undesirably large quantity. Subsequently, and more usually, in neutral or favourable sense: a very large amount, quantity, or variety. (emphasis mine)
So, yes, the careful writer will take note. But the peevers among us should also.

Otherwise, why not open up the shopworn debate on "decimate" while we're at it?

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