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My posting on glass as a technical term, with both mass and count uses, elicited an off-topic thread on myriad, which I'll reproduce below, after some (more) discussion of the Language Log comments policy.

The thread began with this query from kip on 8/1 at 9:58 a.m. (times are U.S. Eastern Time):

Does anyone else have a mass/collective distinction problem with the word "myriad"? I see uses like "the movie has myriad problems" and in my head I change it to "the movie has a myriad of problems" because that's what sounds right to me. Maybe I'm alone in that though…

So what's the problem with this comment?

Relevance to  the thread. As the comments policy instructs:

Be relevant. As bloggers, we write about whatever we want to. As a commenter, you should comment on the contents of the post you're commenting on. If you want to write about something else, do it on your own blog.

(By the way, I am not the author of the comments policy, though thanks to my earlier posting on comments I have gained a reputation, and not a good one, as The Enforcer. The policy was written by Mark Liberman in consultation with the other bloggers. My role has been to complain about some cases where I think the policy has been violated.)

The comment from kip picks up on something that was mentioned in the glass posting, namely the mass/count distinction, and asks about a topic that involves this distinction. The query is perfectly reasonable (with the result that I was sucked into replying to it), but it is in fact off the topic of the posting. It's a "that reminds me of something I've wondered about" comment.

Now I got three particularly interesting responses to my "Comments" posting (from several people each, and mostly in e-mail). The first is that the comments policy, interpreted literally, would allow things like kip's comment, and anything else that mentions something in the original posting (even some usage that happens to occur — used, rather than mentioned — in the original posting). These things are all "contents of the post you're commenting on", right?

One of my correspondents suggested that if we wanted discussion to stay on topic, we should declare a topic for each posting (and perhaps indicate the limits of allowable discussion). That's hugely more directive than we intended to be; we expected commenters to exercise judgment in making their comments, but we also wanted to allow some leeway

The second response was to ask why we should care at all about thread drift in comments, so long as the topics that came up were interesting. That's the question of why we have a comments policy that mentions relevance at all. Well, it's our blog, and we wanted to have reasonably focused discussions (most of us were unhappy with our previous experience with comments, in Language Log Classic, in part because of the chaotic exchanges there). Wide-ranging and somewhat chaotic exchanges can be found all over the net; we intended to do something a bit different.

The third response, related to the second, is to question the focused-discussion model (which one correspondent likened, not inaccurately, to the conduct of a university seminar), when almost all discussions on the net operate on the model of everyday face-to-face conversation, with drifts in topic, abrupt introductions of brand-new topics, routines for conversational maintenance, evaluations of contributions to the discussion, and so on. But we aren't advocating that focused discussion should supplant everyday conversation or its analogues on the net, only asking that our small corner of the net should try for more focus.

In any case, here's what happened with kip's query. First, a blunt categorical response from Rachael at 10:56 a.m.:

Kip: No, quite the opposite. "Myriad" is syntactically like "many", and when I see "a myriad of" it grates, just like misuse of "it's".

Rachael got in a bit before I did, at 11:10 a.m. I was hoping to be helpful while staving off still more off-topic comments:

To kip, about myriad: I wouldn't want to turn this thread into a free-for-all discussion of plural, mass, and collective (there's a truly enormous amount of material there), but what the OED tells us about myriad is about as complex as things could be. It has citations, up to recent times, for all of the following:

a myriad ['countless number'] of NPpl
myriads ['countless numbers'] of NPpl
myriad ['a countless number of'] NPpl
a myriad ['countless number of'] NPpl

myriads [by itself] 'countless multitudes, hosts'
a myriad [by itself] 'a countless multitude, throng'

(There are also citations for the word in its original sense, 'ten thousand', but that's another matter.)

I have no idea of how particular people deploy the variants, or of how the variants are distributed socially/geographically. The word is pretty rare, so this could be a difficult matter to research.

While I was writing this, Rachael's comment came in, and I felt obliged to respond to it (11:42 a.m.):

Rachael: ""Myriad" is syntactically like "many", and when I see "a myriad of" it grates, just like misuse of "it's"."

Well, that's a report on your usage, which is attested since 1765, though in the 19th century, at least, it seems to have been largely restricted to poetry. But your usage is scarcely the only one that's currently standard.

The variant that kip prefers is older (the OED's first cite is from 1609) and is in very general use (OED cites include one from Mark Twain in 1869 and this 1987 cite from the Observer: "A myriad of small specialist companies have also been spawned"). The syntax of this variant is much like that of "number" as in "a number of". I see no reason to insist that only one variant is acceptable.

I've let this subthread on "myriad" go on here, though I should have put it in a new posting. My apologies.

And then I packaged these comments on myriad into this posting. Once I've posted it, I'll delete the comments from the glass posting.

This might seem like going to a lot of trouble, but there's an important consequence of shifting such material from comments to a posting: the topic can now be found by Google searches. New topics introduced in comments are essentially invisible. Until I post this, a Google search on "myriad" (even a Google search on the Language Log site itself) will not find the exchange between kip, Rachael, and me, so that if I left things as they were, then if at some future time someone wants to know if Language Log has discussed the word myriad, they won't find this exchange; only the memory of the bloggers and readers, in particular their ability to recall the posting in which the topic was introduced by commenters, will work.

[Added 8/2/08: as quite a few readers have now pointed out, Google searches will in fact find things in comments. My apologies for the error. What DOESN'T work is searches on WordPress within Language Log.]

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