Words in the News

Disagreements are plenty

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Written by Stan Carey

When Samuel Johnson wrote his Dictionary in the 18th century, it broke the mould in several ways. One was its inclusion of literary citations beneath a word’s definition. These are lines by canonical authors showing the word in context. Citations help readers to appreciate how a word is used, instead of its meaning being presented in isolation. Pairing definitions with citations can also teach us about linguistic attitudes. There are plenty of examples. But can we say that examples ‘are plenty’?

Johnson’s Dictionary includes four senses of the word plenty, three of which it supplies without editorializing. The other definition is as follows: ‘It is used, I think barbarously, for plentiful.’ The usage is supported with two citations, one of them from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: ‘If reasons were as plenty as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.’



‘I think barbarously’ is an interesting aside. It shows how personal feelings can override impartiality. Johnson held Shakespeare in great esteem, but even with Johnson’s command of poetry and his knowledge of Shakespeare’s linguistic genius and innovation, he cannot accept the playwright’s use of plenty to mean ‘plentiful’. Far from it: in his view, it is ‘barbarous’. But he does not dogmatically assert, ‘It is used barbarously’ – the phrase ‘I think’ is a telling concession.

In ‘reasons were as plenty as blackberries’, plenty functions as a predicate adjective. It has been used this way since 1400 or so, often informally. Johnson was not alone in disliking the usage: The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage chronicles centuries of spurious objections despite evidence that it was ‘in respectable literary use at least through the 19th century, though it is not very common in the 20th.’

Behind this criticism of plenty as a predicate adjective we find a political stance on language. It is a popular fallacy that only the most formal, proper, standard English is OK, and that colloquial, casual, regional, and other varieties are inferior, even wrong. It is more accurate to think of correctness not as absolute but as depending on local conditions and context, and subject to change.

Predicate contrasts with attributive, which means before a noun rather than after. Plenty is used this way too, as in ‘plenty things to do’. This has an informal flavour and is mainly a spoken usage. Inserting of, as in ‘plenty of things to do’, makes it more widely acceptable (and changes the word’s grammar).

Surveying the history of plenty in its various roles, Robert Burchfield, in his revision of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, concludes that uses of plenty as an adjective, whether predicative or attributive, are well established in some informal contexts and ‘stand at the rim of acceptable standard English’. Grey areas in the language are plenty, and this is an example with plenty (of) moving parts.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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