In informal English, I often see the phrase "some variety of" referring to a singular classification of a particular object of a sentence. For example:

That appears to be some variety of plant.

This class is just some variety of higher-level type.

Due to the boundedness of variety as referring to "a number or collection of different things, especially of a particular class," is this necessarily incorrect usage? Despite the numerous distinctions in the English language between an object's singular and plural forms, this might indeed be the case, but by that same token, the phrase can be easily satisfied by substituting a size of one for the number or size of the collection. This satisfies the definition, despite the further qualifier "of different things," in which it can be logically inferred that the single term differs from nothing at all.

I'm clearly over-thinking this, and the phrase is regardless vague and non-specific, but I'm more curious if it's correct according to the current, formal revision of the English language.

  • 1
    In common parlance one normally says "some kind of", or "some type of". No-one frets about whether the particular thing being spoken of is the only one of its kind, regardless of which word is used. I think this question is too localised. – FumbleFingers Dec 20 '11 at 23:41
  • NGrams says that collectively, kind, sort, type occur about 250 times more often than variety in this construction, where semantically and grammatically they're all exact equivalents. Why single out this particularly uncommon variant for detailed analysis? – FumbleFingers Dec 22 '11 at 16:10
  • @FumbleFingers Localized jargon combined with a poor first sourcing of the dictionary definition. Note that there's a clear disparity of information here; I only personally put something into an SE question when I'm unable to move forward in researching it trivially. -- To that end, thank you for mentioning Google NGrams (books.google.com/ngrams). That'll work nicely in my bag of tricks alongside Google Trends. – MrGomez Dec 23 '11 at 0:26

The phrase is perfectly fine. Some here is an adjective which means:

1. being an undetermined or unspecified one: Some person may object.

Variety means:

4. a kind or sort.

Variety can indeed mean a collection of things, but in this sentence it doesn't.

  • That'll do. It's one of those edge cases where the most findable definition is itself confusing in its narrowing use of qualifiers. – MrGomez Dec 20 '11 at 21:35
  • This is certainly the case with phrases like "variety of plant" where the term "variety" means an identifiable species or sub-species. See definition 4 in this dictionary definition of variety. – David Schwartz Dec 20 '11 at 22:03

The word "variety" can mean a collection of related things, but it can also mean one member of such a collection. That is, we can say, "There were a variety of snacks on the table", meaning there were many different kinds of snacks. We can also say, "Potato chips are one variety of snack food," meaning that of all the possible snack foods, one kind is potato chips. (I'd never thought of these two definitions being potentially confusing before now.)

So when a person says, "This is some variety of plant," he means that there are many types of plant in the world, and this is one of them. The point of such a statement is usually to indicate that you have identified that this is a plant, as opposed to an animal or a man-made object, but you don't know what kind of plant it is.

  • +1 for the second paragraph. The construction "some variety of" (also "some kind of" or "some sort of") is vague, but it's a vagueness that indicates the speaker's awareness of the possibility for greater specificity. – Jonathan Van Matre Dec 20 '11 at 23:12
  • @Jonathan: Exactly. People often criticize a word or phrase on the grounds that it is vague. But if the speaker doesn't know the complete answer, a vague or partial answer is all he can give. It's surely better to say, "I don't know" than to make something up! – Jay Dec 21 '11 at 14:58

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