Much ado about a lot
No, not about Mary Newton Bruder's book Much Ado About a Lot
, but about
the quantity determiners much
and a lot of
. It all
started when a Stanford Humanities Center colleague, Wendy Larson,
asked me about a point of English usage: had I noticed occurrences of much
that seemed awkward, but were
improved when replaced by a lot of
She had, in student writing. I hadn't, but I instantly saw her
point: things like "There was much rain last night" and "Much shrubbery
was growing in front of the house" are grammatical for me, but "There
was a lot of rain last night" and "A lot of shrubbery was growing in
front of the house" strike me as very much better.
The advice literature on English usage mostly sees the difference as
one of style/register -- a lot of
(also lots of
) is specifically informal,
casual, colloquial, conversational, spoken -- and there turns out
to be something in that, though it's not really right to fix on a lot of
as the stylistically
marked item of the pair, and there's much more variation in formal
writing than some of the advice books suppose. Meanwhile, ESL
materials mostly see the difference as determined by syntactic context
) is used in questions and
negatives, a lot of
positive sentences -- and again there's something in that, but there's
also a lot of variation in both sets of contexts.
Where there is variation, just how free is it? For many years,
Dwight Bolinger steadfastly maintained that a difference in form always
spells a difference in meaning, so that all variation will turn out to
be unfree, if you look hard enough. I'm not willing to go that
far, but I do believe that almost all putative free variants turn out
to be discriminable (on the basis of semantics or discourse function)
in certain contexts. As, I think, is the case for much
and a lot of
The first reaction that Larson and I had to examples like "Much
shrubbery was growing in front of the house" was that the occurrence of
in them was
inappropriately stiff and formal -- a proposal that would predict that
with head nouns from the low end of the style/register spectrum, much
would be really terrible,
while with head nouns from the high end of this spectrum, much
would be fine. Both predictions were almost immediately borne
out, but only to some extent.
with a really
informal noun, like fun
"We had much fun at the beer blast" is pretty dreadful (though not
ungrammatical). I undertook a quick Google web search on "much
fun", hoping (without much reflection on the matter) that this would be
as easy to do as the
searches I did
vs. such as
2005. Instant complications. Huge numbers of hits on
passives like "Much fun was had by all" (related, I suppose, to the
formula "A good time was had by all" -- where, I wonder, do these odd
passives come from?), which had to be set aside. Then very large
numbers of "much fun" with a degree modifier on the "much": too
, etc. This is a
context in which no variation between much
and a lot
is possible, since a lot
cannot be modified by these
degree words (while much
cannot be modified by quite
the only degree word that occurs with a
with any frequency). Excluding these degree words
in the search cut things down, but not as much as I'd hoped, thanks to
the existence of the jokey proper names "Sew Much Fun", "Two Much Fun",
and "Snow Much Fun" (who knew?).
In the end I looked at the first hundred remaining items (out of ca.
30,200). There were a respectable number of hits -- given this
amount of noise, the exact number isn't important -- a lot of them in
negative contexts: "Dead Pornstars Aren't Much Fun", "you aren't much
fun", "Not Much Fun", "it can't be much fun being a member of..."
But not all: "touring Europe and Korea... and having much fun", "an
exciting holiday with much fun and pleasure".
To summarize so far: there seemed to be some style/register effect for much
, and also an independent
syntactico-semantic effect, generally allowing much
in negative contexts.
(Quickly, I realized that interrogative contexts also allowed much
freely: "Did you have much fun
at the beer blast?") Obviously, there's a lot more work to be
done here, but this is a start.
with head nouns
from the higher end of style/register spectrum, for instance
nominalizations. Here, Larson supplied some examples from her
reading. In Jack Turner's article "Green Gold" (on absinthe) in
the 3/13/06 New Yorker
found two such examples, both in positive contexts:
He makes his absinthes from entirely
natural ingredients, and there has been much speculation about what
those ingredients are. (p. 40)
Alcoholism was not yet properly understood, and there was much
confusion about absinthe's physiological effects. (p. 41)
Both of these sound fine to me (and Larson).
(In addition, there's an occurrence of (positive) headless much
not long after these:
Hemingway did much to burnish the
drink's legend... (p. 42)
I might have preferred a lot
here, but much
is ok. I
take headless much
to belong with much
in combination with
stylistically neutral head nouns.)
To summarize: much
be generally congenial with more formal head nouns.
At this point, I turned to MWDEU
and its article on lots
, a lot
, which begins:
Sir Ernest Gowers in Fowler 1965 notes
that the Concise Oxford Dictionary labels a lot colloquial but that modern
writers do not hesitate to use it in serious prose... Colloquial is the favorite handbook
label for a lot and lots: about three quarters of those
in our collection use it.
And those handbooks often advise against it, as in this quotation from
Morris & Morris, Harper
Dictionary of Contemporary Usage
(1975), p. 379:
In the senses of "very much" and "a
great amount," lot and lots are accepted as Standard by
the latest dictionaries. However, they are still considered
Informal by many, and a different choice of words is advisable in
and from Trask's (2005) Say What You
, p. 171:
OF, A LOT OF Normal in spoken English, these
expressions still look rather strange in formal writing. Quite a
few people are now happy to use these things in formal writing, and
write Lots of research has been done,
but many readers will find this objectionable. You are advised to
write A great deal of research has
been done, or, in very formal writing, Much research has been done.
(Notice that Trask treats much
as stylistically marked (as formal) AND a lot of
as stylistically marked
On the other hand,
the Collins Cobuild English Grammar
(1990) assigns no stylistic level to either much
or a lot of
; Garner's Modern American Usage
(2003) seems not to mention the topic at all; and one of the on-line
grammar sites (Literacy
) specifically says that a lot
"has the same meaning as both
and can be interchanged with
Back on the first hand, the Longman
Grammar of Spoken and Written English
(1999), tells us:
Other determiners specifying a large
quantity are a great/good many (with plural countable
nouns, a great/good deal of (with uncountable
nouns), plenty of, a lot of, and lots of. The last three
combine with both uncountable and countable nouns. They are
characteristic of casual speech... (p. 276)
Some of the differences in the use of quantifiers may reflect their
relative novelty, in historical terms. Those ending in of... are recent developments from
quantifying nouns. It is thus no surprise that these are
relatively rare, and when they do occur, they are most typically found
in conversation, or carry a strong overt one of casual speech when
used... (p. 277)
This is the authors' interpretation of their corpus results for
quantity determiners, as summarized in Table 4.15 (p. 278), from which
the following figures (in occurrences per million words, in
conversation, fiction, news writing, and academic writing) are
|a lot of
Now, it's true that a lot of
occurs more often in conversation that in any of the three other
genres, and least in academic writing (which would suggest that it's
still not entirely congenial with great formality). But many
(the parallel to a lot of
) also occurs more often in
conversation than in fiction and news writing. What's really
striking about the table, however, is that many
occurs most often in academic
writing; this is consistent with the proposal that this determiner is
in fact stylistically marked, as formal.
on its own
(separated from many
less often in the more formal half of the style spectrum (400/million)
than in the less formal half (1000/million). I'm not at all sure
how to interpret this, especially since this pattern is the opposite of
the pattern for many
(1600/million inh the more formal half vs. 800/million in the less
formal half). It might follow from differences between many
with respect to negation,
interrogativity, and/or preceding degree modifiers in the two sets of
genres. Another topic for further study.
(In all genres, many
is more frequent than a lot of
, but it's hard to assess
the significance of that fact, given that a lot of
is inconsistent with a
wide range of degree modifiers, as noted above.)
To summarize this tour through the advice books and the Longman Grammar
: despite what some
of the advice literature says, a lot
isn't strongly conversational/casual in style; instead,
there's merely some dispreference for using it in very formal
writing. The Longman Grammar
data are apparently not consistent with Larson's and my judgments (also
suggested by Trask) that much
is tilted towards the formal end of the spectrum, as many
pretty clearly is.
When we look at on-line ESL materials, formality hardly figures at
all. Instead, negativity and interrogativity are listed in source
after source as heavily favoring much
, with a lot of
used primarily in positive
statements. Some typical advice:
are generally used in
questions and negatives... A lot of
is used in positive sentences...
are usually used in negative
sentences and questions... Much
is not usually used in affirmative sentences. For these we prefer
a lot of
or lots of
can be used in
affirmative sentences when it is preceded by so
We generally use many
in questions and negative
statements but we use a lot of
in positive statements.
are used in negative and
question forms... They are also used with too
, and (not
... In positive statements,
we use a lot of
(The Longman Grammar
, p. 275,
notes the negation connection, saying of many
: "They are typically used in
Formality makes an appearance in at least one of the on-line ESL sites:
is used with uncountable
nouns, and is often used in negative statements and questions.
It's uncommon to use much
positive statements... Much
can be used in
affirmative statements, but give a more formal meaning... A lot of
is used with uncountable
and countable nouns, and is generally used for affirmative
statements... A lot of
is also used in questions, especially when you expect a positive
response. Although it is often said that much
are used for questions, we
usually use them for questions which expect a negative response.
- Do you want a lot of pizza?
I expect you want to eat a lot.
- Do you want much pizza?
This sounds unusual, as though I expect you don't want to eat much.
can be used in the
same way as a lot of
in informal speech.
Now we have introduced the possibility that there is (sometimes) a
meaning difference between much
and a lot of
, as we'd expect
from the rule of thumb that variation is unfree (Bolinger's
1a. Much office work is tedious.
1b. A lot of office work is tedious.
My intuition is that 1a merely says that a large amount of office work
is tedious, while 1b says that a SIGNIFICANTLY
amount of office work (possibly the majority of it) is tedious.
Ceteris paribus, 1b is (I think) a stronger claim than 1a.
There's even a possible source for such a meaning difference: a lot of
, with its source in a
nominal construction, has a secondary accent on lot
, while much
, like many other determiners,
has a tertiary accent; in addition, a
has three syllables, while much
has but one. So a lot of
is significantly heavier
phonologically than much
. A greater
semantic strength for a lot of
would then be iconic to its greater phonological weight. (Ok,
it's speculative, but I've just started exploring this topic, so now's
the time for speculation.)
In any case, I'm hoping that this difference (or some other one) can be
parlayed into an account of the difference between 2a and 2b (from the
1-language site), which I feel pretty strongly:
2a. Do you want much pizza?
2b. Do you want a lot of pizza?
And also into a difference I (think I) see in some negative
sentences. This one I'm going to have to work up to.
First, distinguish NP-internal negation (hereafter, Int-Neg), in which not
is a constituent with an NP it
negates, as in 3, from VP-external negation (hereafter, Ext-Neg), in
which is outside the VP of a clause it negates, as in 4 and 5:
3a. Not much shrubbery still had
leaves on it.
3b. Not a lot of shrubbery still had leaves on it.
4a. We didn't see much shrubbery.
4b. We didn't see a lot of shrubbery.
5a. There isn't much we can do about it.
5b. There isn't a lot we can do about it.
(I think I detect subtle meaning differences in each pair, but that's
not my point here.)
Now, an alternative to clausal negation with a negative auxiliary (in -n't
) is clausal negation with
, as in 6:
6a. There's not much we can do
6b. There's not a lot we can do about it.
It's well-known that examples like 6 are in fact ambiguous, between an
Int-Neg structure and an Ext-Neg structure. I believe that's true
here, except that 6a strongly favors the Int-Neg structure ('There's
(only) a little we can do about it'), while 6b does not, and might even
favor the Ext-Neg structure ('We're unable to do a lot about it', i.e.,
'It's not the case that we're able to do a lot about it').
Enough for today. There are plenty of loose ends to entertain
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at April 5, 2006 07:27 PM