April 05, 2006

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 -- much (also many) is used in questions and negatives, a lot of in 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 much 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.

First, much 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 on like vs. such as in September 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, as, so, how, that, this, very, pretty, 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 lot of 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.

Second, much 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, she 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 seems to 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 writing.

and from Trask's (2005) Say What You Mean!, p. 171:

LOTS 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 (as conversational).)

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 Education Online) specifically says that a lot "has the same meaning as both many and much and can be interchanged with either one."

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 extracted:

a lot of
< 100

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 + much (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.

Nevertheless, much on its own (separated from many) occurs 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 and much 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 + much 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 of 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 and many, with a lot of used primarily in positive statements.  Some typical advice:

www.learnenglish.be: Much and many are generally used in questions and negatives... A lot of is used in positive sentences...

www.learnenglish.org.uk: Much and many 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....  Much  can be used in affirmative sentences when it is preceded by so, too or as...

grammar.free-esl.com: We generally use many and much in questions and negative statements but we use a lot of in positive statements.

www.edufind.com: Note: much and many are used in negative and question forms...  They are also used with too, (not) so, and (not) as...  In positive statements, we use a lot of...

(The Longman Grammar, p. 275, notes the negation connection, saying of many and much: "They are typically used in negative contexts".)

Formality makes an appearance in at least one of the on-line ESL sites:

www.1-language.com: Much is used with uncountable nouns, and is often used in negative statements and questions.  It's uncommon to use much in positive statements...  Much and many 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 and many are used for questions, we usually use them for questions which expect a negative response.  For example:
    - 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.

Lots of can be used in the same way as a lot of, often 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 dictum).  Consider

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 large 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 lot of 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 independent not, as in 6:

6a.  There's not much we can do about it.
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 yourselves with.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at April 5, 2006 07:27 PM