A WORD IN THE HAND: MYRIAD
Like eel and pizza, this gives me sweaty palms that imperil a postman
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
I nearly hit a postman on the way to work this morning. This does not happen often, mostly because there are hardly any postmen to be seen out of their lairs these days, so finding one to narrowly miss in your car during daylight hours is much trickier than it used to be.
Also, motorists are far more careful to give postmen a wide berth on the rare occasions when one is spotted out hunting for a cycle lane. Given the scarcity of post, anyone who even attempts to deliver anything to its intended recipient should be treated with great care. Postmen should be declared a critically endangered species, if you ask me. Bookshops should sell beaded bracelets to raise funds for their puncture kits.
But wait now. The reason I almost didn’t miss the postman was because on the car radio was an advertisement for a university. It seems a bit odd that universities should advertise, given that they already have way more applicants than they can handle, nevertheless, they do. And in this sponsored segment of airtime, a voice artist was telling us about some intellectual event or perhaps some academic publication or maybe it was a cerebral holiday resort for alumni … I can’t tell you the details because I stopped listening when I heard this voice say “a myriad of”.
I don’t know what there was supposed to be a lot of – subjects, perhaps, or degrees, or student parking spaces or palm trees. I can’t tell you, because hearing “a myriad of” made my palms go all sweaty and my eyes go all blurred, as though someone had just sprayed my hands with chilli oil while pulling a large red beret over my head.
It was at that point that I almost hit the postman. I’m very glad I didn’t, because there are not myriad postmen pedalling precariously on our pavements. No person should ever be knocked down by a car, of course, I’m just pointing out how particularly precious our postmen are. They don’t magically proliferate when injured, like Hydra’s heads or wet gremlins who eat after midnight.
Did you see what I did there? I said “myriad postmen”. Not “a myriad of” postmen. “A” and “of” have no business being on either side of myriad. Think of myriad as pizza and “a” and “of” as eel and raisins. You wouldn’t serve them all together, unless you’re an anarchist with no taste buds.
Imagine seeing a postman cycling along the road with a second postman on his right and a third on his left. If three postmen were by some miraculous collision of supernatural forces ever to be found cycling on the same road, and that road happened to be Chapman’s Peak Drive, then yes of course they would ride three abreast. But the chances of this ever happening are slimmer than Tim Noakes’s book of cake recipes.
The point is, everyone should be just as gobsmacked to hear “a myriad of” as they would be to see a sleek peloton of red bicycles racing through city streets to hand-deliver e-toll bills before their best-by date.
Here’s why. “Myriad” comes from the Greek for “ten thousand”. You would not say “a ten thousand of” just as you wouldn’t say “a five of” or “a twenty-seven of”.
Even if you remove it from its original numeric meaning, myriad has come to mean innumerable, countless, infinite or boundless. Or just many, if you want to keep things simple.
And you also wouldn’t say “an innumerable of”, “a countless of”, “a boundless of”, or “a many of”.
So there it is.
I’m not usually such a pedant, but this matters, and if even the voice artist reading a script provided by an advertising agency on behalf of a communications consultant that advises someone connected to a university can’t get it right, then what hope is there for the rest of us?
It gives me myriad nightmares.
But at least I didn’t hit the postman. That would have been terrible, whether or not there were myriad.