The noun dearth, meaning a scarce supply, is synonymous with shortage and scarcity. A time of dearth is one in which things are dear—dear being the root of dearth—so there are things, just not many or much of them. So, at least traditionally, dearth does not mean a complete lack or absence. For example, if you have $12.43 in your bank account, you have a dearth of funds. If you have $0.00 in your account, you don’t even have enough for a dearth. So phrases like complete dearth and total dearth are as logical as total shortage and complete scarcity.


These writers use dearth in the traditional sense:


A seemingly infinite number of op-ed pieces bemoan the dearth of medals we’re earning or have earned. [Eccentric Muse]

Aleksandar Hemon points to this dearth of translated literature in his introduction to Best European Fiction 2010, a new anthology. [NHPR]

And these cases, dearth means complete lack or absence, which is a little different from its traditional meaning:

Rare books cataloging systems and the utter dearth of work on pre-nineteenth century paintings makes locating earlier work a difficult task. [Appositions]

That is, Trekkies who are willing to overlook brain-lockingly repetitive gameplay, unvaried design, thin storytelling, buggy client software and an almost complete dearth of meaningful social interaction.  [NY Times]


Check Your Text


  1. Desleigh Monaghan says:

    Thanks for your wonderful site! The rich tapestry of the language we know as English may yet be appreciated and preserved. Have you already covered decimate and hopefully elsewhere? In my experience, these two words are commonly misused..Desleigh.

  2. Is ‘almost complete dearth’ really questionable? I would say that, excepting absolutes like totally, completely, utter, and the like, it is perfectly acceptable to modify dearth with an adverb that conveys relevant meaning to it. If you said you had an almost complete scarcity of money, that to me would mean something different than if you had a slight scarcity of money , while neither are illogical.

  3. Hi Cutty,

    Since “dearth” cannot be absolute, it cannot logically be modified by an adverb that suggests absoluteness. Same goes for words like “unique” and “pregnant.” Either she’s unique or not; pregnant or not–not completely unique, incompletely unique, completely pregnant, or incompletely pregnant. I think of “a dearth of something” as very little of something. It’s illogical to say you have an almost complete very little of something, or an almost complete lot of something. What “relevant meaning” do you think “an almost complete” adds to “dearth”?

    • I thought that was pretty clear in my post below! Why is it illogical to say you have an almost complete very little of something? I’ll agree that your phrasing is a bit clunky, I would use ‘lack’ instead of ‘very little’…in fact almost complete lack of whatever is a phrase I’ve heard quite a few times. Anyway, if I’m used to getting $100 a month in income but this month I only received $30, I could say to you “Man, Leo, I have a dearth of funds this month!” Lets say the next month, I only got $10…that is MORE of a dearth than the month before. How am I to indicate this? “I have a dearth of funds that results in a bit less money for me than the previous month?” That’s a bit long winded. I suppose I could say, “I just jumped to a height that is of a greater elevation than the height to which I had previously jumped” but I prefer “I jumped higher.” My point is that there is indeed relevant information to be conveyed by indicating the level of scarcity a thing has, as long as you aren’t saying there is a complete scarcity, which is the logical fallacy (you just don’t have anything).

Speak Your Mind

About Grammarist
Contact | Privacy policy | Home
© Copyright 2009-2014 Grammarist