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The word plethora means “excess” or “overabundance.” Over the years, however, it’s become popular (particularly in the phrase a plethora of) as a fancy but misguided way of saying “a lot.” Take, for example, this sentence which appeared in the draft of an article about a university production that got some national coverage:

The magazine referred to the show as dazzling and posted a plethora of opening night pictures on its site.

Does the writer intend to imply that the magazine posted too many pictures? I doubt it. So let’s not mince words: using the term like this is just plain wrong. The estimable Bryan Garner — who is neither slouch nor schoolmarm — backs me up here, noting the phenomenon and calling it “an unfortunate degeneration of sense.”

Really, though, I think that’s being rather kind. To be honest, when I see or hear the phrase misused like this, my knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss the writer as a linguistic dilettante. Strong words, I know. But for my ear, it goes beyond the usage issues: I always think plethora sounds hackneyed and smells a bit of self-importance.

The book includes several thematic units, each with a plethora of activities that could be modified for the classroom.

Lucky for us, avoiding the word couldn’t be easier: there are a plethora of plenty of synonyms to choose from:

The book includes several thematic units, each with a profusion of activities that could be modified for the classroom.

The book includes several thematic units, each with a wealth of activities that could be modified for the classroom.

The book includes several thematic units, each with an abundance of activities that could be modified for the classroom.

Are those examples a bit high-flown for your tastes? You could always edit to make the statement more direct or more specific:

The book includes several thematic units, each with many activities that could be modified for the classroom.

The book includes several thematic units, each with dozens of activities that could be modified for the classroom.

Now, I realize that when we’re talking about large quantities, hyperbole is the name of the game: There was tons of food at the party; I have a million reasons not to call him back; her position on the issue is light years away from mine. But the case of plethora has two lessons to teach us: First, this type of overstatement is best suited for casual communication, not professional writing. Second, it’s best to steer clear of a ten-dollar word if you’re not entirely sure what it means.

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