Thought of the Day: Plethora

Plethora means an excess, an overabundance of something. Most people use it thinking that it means a multitude, but in reality it’s a word better suited for when you have far too much of something. In a way, it’s almost negative, like having a burdensome amount.

The reason I bring this up is not to call out the fact that most people actually misuse this word, but rather that they use it at all. Plethora is one of those words that people use when they are trying to appear smart. It may not be a big word physically, but it sounds like a big word.

I can forgive the ex-athlete who mistakenly uses the word in place of multitude or abundance on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Given the ease at which a star athlete can cruise through our education system, it’s not surprising that many have a limited vocabulary and – whether they realize it or not – tend to misuse words like plethora in an attempt to compensate for their feelings of intellectual inadequacy.

nyerBut I have little patience for writers who use such words. Again, most of the time they actually mean multitude or abundance but use plethora not just out of ignorance but also in an effort to appear intellectual. Hey, if you really want to impress me, step it up a notch and use the word copiousness. Or, if you really meant overabundance (and didn’t just want to use that word, which is perfectly suitable), how about using superfluity instead?

Words like plethora act as signal flares for weak writers. Not just because they tend to misuse them, but because they use them to try to impress you, the reader. I find that such words tend to separate the proverbial men from the boys, the good writers from the merely adequate.

I used to teach a course in writing as part of a former employer’s training and development program. The title of the course was Great Writing Is Like Great Sex. When sex is really good, you don’t think about it. You are totally absorbed in the moment. The same is true for writing. When it is good, you forget that you are even reading it. Your are completely absorbed in the story.

And when I come across a word like plethora, I immediately lose my focus. Again, if you want to impress me, fancy vocabulary words are not the way to go. Impress me by captivating me with your story, by drawing me in to whatever you are saying so that I feel like we have a mental connection beyond the page.

As a writer, it’s important to remember that the words are only the medium, not the focus. We don’t write to put words on paper. We write to communicate, to convey a story.

Even talented writers can fall into this trap. For example, I love The New Yorker, but I can spend an hour reading a story in that magazine simply because I have to look up a word I’m unfamiliar with in nearly every paragraph. Impressive vocabularies are indeed impressive, but a plethora of arcane words renders even the best writing unreadable. Unless you are a logophile. And now you have to stop and look that up, breaking the flow of this story. Unless, of course, you are really a logophile.