Monday 24 August 2009

On many

A correspondent writes to ask about the use of the unpremodified quantifier many in affirmative sentences. He says: 'When I venture to use many affirmatively, the result sounds awfully unnatural: I’ve seen many fish while I was snorkelling, I’ve seen many hybrid cars in Wellington. Other examples that puzzle me include: I’ve interviewed many people (which I think sounds natural) vs I’ve eaten many biscuits (which is an example that Geoffrey Pullum singles out as particularly objectionable).' And he adds: 'Does many actually refer to a different number from a lot of?'

I think we're dealing with a stylistic issue here. Many has long had an association with formality, as also, incidentally, has few and much. It's always difficult to pinpoint the origins of a stylistic preference, but I think this one is due to biblical influence, especially via the King James Bible, where we find many examples:

many are the afflictions of the righteous
a father of many nations
a coat of many colours
many are called but few are chosen

It also appears a lot in proverbs, such as Many hands make light work. And it became a feature of high-blown rhetorical style: Many would agree with me....

The stylistic contrast is easy to demonstrate. Take the sentence I used just now. Replacing many produces an immediate informal tone:

...where we find many examples.
...where we find a lot of examples.
...where we find lots of examples.

Conversely, when many is used, the collocations ought to satisfy the demands of that stylistic level, otherwise they will seem anomalous. This, I suspect, is why Geoff Pullum doesn't like many biscuits, and why many hybrid cars and many fish in the context of snorkelling sound odd. These notions are perhaps a mite too downmarket for an upmarket quantifier, as would be many hiccups, many flutters (on the races), and so on, where one of the lot constructions would be the usual quantifier. As always, we should try to find convincing contrasts:

Many people were waiting to enter the building.
?Many guys were waiting to enter the building.

But the situation is fluid, because there is a far more flexible use of many in negative constructions and when modified (how many etc). So I'd expect there to be quite a bit of opinion difference about this, and probably quite a bit of regional difference too.


MM said...

I've eaten many biscuits, but this is by far the best.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Many a new face will please my eye
Many a new love will find me never have I once looked back
Many a new day will dawn before I do
Many a red sun will set
Many a blue moon will shine before I do

David Crosbie said...

For me, many is associated with diversity. Biscuits and fish are often treated as identical, and so collocate awkwardly with many. But they can also be treated as types, not tokens. So the example I've eaten many biscuits sounds OK when referring to biscuits of many different kinds.

It sounds even better if many biscuits or many fish is a subject rather than an object:

Many biscuits are named after famous people or places

Many fish are in danger of of extinction

Anonymous said...

Professor Crystal,

Thank you so much for this in-depth response. Your demonstration based on substitution is very convincing. In particular, the example with ‘many guys’ is striking!

I also find the biblical hypothesis fascinating. People’s word choice are likely to be shaped by these biblical passages, especially in English-speaking countries or communities where Christianity is widespread, and bible reading a common practice.

Now, are there any other factors than formality for the use of the unpremodified ‘many’ in statements?

Does syntactic function play a part? Oddly enough, everytime I come across a statement where the use of ‘many’ is objectionable, then ‘many’ is always in the object position. Is that a coincidence? Please examine the sentences below:

? I ate many biscuits (The Cambridge grammar of the English language by Geoffrey Pullum)
? Slovakia has many small towns (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English – usage note)
?I have many books (The Right Word, Wrong Word by L.G. Alexander)
? I have many problems, Doctor (An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage by Geoffrey Leech)
? I’ve got many friends (An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage by Geoffrey Leech)

And aren’t there any instances where ‘many’ could be neutral in style when occurring unmodified in statements? Thus, how formal is ‘many’ in the following sentences? Are ‘a lot of’ and ‘lots of ’possible substitutes for ‘many’ in the following sentences?

I went to France many years ago.
I’ve seen this film many times.
There are many kinds of microbes.

Thank you again for a very interesting exchange of ideas. I enjoy reading your erudite blog (and your books too!).



DC said...

Many a is an interesting construction, which I think reinforces the stylistic point, but it raises a different set of issues because of its distinctive syntax.

I agree there's a subject/object distinction of some sort. Difficult to pin it down, though.

Specific time nouns do seem to be different, probably because they form idiomatic phrases such as many N ago, many's the time, and the like. Formality doesn't seem to be the issue here. I couldn't substitute lots of in many years, though I could with times. Microbes is technical, and thus motivates many (as argued in my post). Interestingly, several of the many a examples in the previous comment are time-related too.

Douglas Carnall, @juliuzbeezer said...

Another reason to prefer loTZuv is the strong poetic value of its stressed interior consonants. Many is just a mumbly smear in comparison. Lotsa fun this blog. Thanks a lot!

Barrie England said...

A sentence such as ‘I don’t like a lot of biscuits’ can mean that there are many types of biscuit that I don’t like, although there may be some of which I can’t get enough. There, it seems to me that ‘many’ can replace ‘a lot of’ with no change to the sense.

However, such a sentence would perhaps more usually suggest that I’m not very keen on biscuits at all (‘I don’t like biscuits a lot’), although that sense is perhaps more common with mass nouns (‘I don’t like a lot of cabbage, thank you’). In either of those cases, the substitution of ‘many’ (or ‘much’ in the case of mass nouns) would, I think, be unlikely.

Richard Sabey said...

@David Crosbie You surprise me. The only word I can think of which primarily expresses quantity, but has connotations of diversity, is "several", and even then I fear that to say that "several" expresses diversity would be to commit the etymological fallacy, or at least to not notice that language changes. "Many" has no such connotations for me.

Perhaps the reason why your last two examples sound better to you is not that "many N" is the subject, but that the subject denotes many types. Of course, then, they would be diverse.

@Barrie England Your example "I don’t like a lot of biscuits" contains another ambiguity, due to the negative and the quantifier. So I see four possible senses.

I (don't like) (a lot of biscuits) = I hate eating a large quantity/number of biscuits. [However, eating them one at a time is OK.]
I (don't like) (a lot of types of biscuits) = there are many types of biscuits I hate eating (the sense you mention).
I like (not a lot of biscuits) = I like to eat a small quantity/number of biscuits.
I like (not a lot of types of biscuits) = there are few types of biscuits I like eating

Whichever senses seem plausible in any context, I don't see that replacing "a lot of" with "many" is of any avail in reducing the ambiguity.

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Crystal

Thank you so much for your additional comments on ‘many’, which have contributed to a very insightful conversation. Your entry has obviously generated a lot of enthusiasm among your readers and I have found their reactions very interesting.

Your blog entry, as well as your readers’ comments, have truly enlightened me on many aspects (or lots of aspects?) of ‘many’ but has also opened up new questions. For this reason, is there any chance you could devote a second blog entry on ‘many’? I’m sorry if I sound forward!

1. As in MM’s example, could ‘many’, when used affirmatively, mean ‘many different kinds of’?
I've eaten many biscuits, but this is by far the best (MM)

Similarly, could ‘I saw many fish while I was snorkelling’ mean that I saw many different species of fish, not just a big amount of them?

Actually, doesn’t the quantifier ‘many,’ when it modifies concrete nouns in a statement, always mean ‘many different’? Thus, does the statement, ‘I have many books’, emphasise more the variety of books than the large number of them?

2. As you pointed out, Professor, ‘many’ is so formal that it can feel unnatural when it co-occurs with words that are mundane and neutral in style, as in I ate many biscuits.

Now, what would happen, if the sentences that precede and follow the unnatural occurence contained a lot of formality markers. Would then ‘many’ feel less unnatural? For instance, could you show us how to add context to ‘I ate many biscuits’, so that many would feel more natural?

-------------------------. I ate many biscuits--------------------. ----------------------------

3. Could you explain any further why ‘many’ associates well with time references (many years ago, many times), while these words aren’t formal. Is the ability of these nouns to form phrases with many the only reason?

4. What about adverbial phrases such as ‘in many cases’ or ‘on many occasions’? Why does ‘many’ collocate well with these nouns (cases, occasions...), although they’re very neutal in style? Or is ‘many’ more neutral when occurring in adverbial phrases?

I thank you again for your time and look forward to your explanations.

Yours sincerely

Frédéric Dichtel

DC said...

This discussion is beginning to sound rather artificial because the examples are out of context. These are pseudo-ambiguities most of the time, which a wider context would resolve. For example, whatever the meaning of I have many books when the sentence stands alone, the quantity issue is plainly possible when we add some further context, such as John has many books in his London apartment but not so many in his country house.

It's difficult to provide plausible examples of 'eating many biscuits', as the core informality arises from the intrinsic homeliness of this situation. But maybe something along these lines... To aid rapid recovery, patients are advised to eat many biscuits before retiring.

I've no idea, re 3 and 4. This raises the question of where idiomatic phrases (or, at least, phrases with highly restricted collocation) come from.

Jimmy said...

There’s also something about duration going on.

‘I must warn you, that biscuit is strong stuff.’
‘My dear, I’ve eaten many biscuits in my time.’

‘Do you want some cake?’
‘No thanks, I’ve eaten a lot of biscuits.’

Daniel Toro Pardo said...

In his blog, David crystal sparks doubt concerning the correct usage of many vs. lots or a lot. To avoid running into conclusions, I wrote myself a few examples using the same sentences or phrases but changing many for lots. To my surprise, I found that I inferred completely different things right away. To set an example, I wrote down "I have many fish" right besides "I have lots of fish". As i read the first one I had a mental image of an aquarium with a variety of different species of fish. In the later, I visualized a fisherman on a boat selling loads of salmon. In effect, I concluded that they are both correct in their own, but it drastically depends on the intentions of the words imprinted. They trigger specific reactions, and so therefore should be used as support for different intentions. One does not necessarily replace the other.

me said...

I’ve seen many hybrid cars in Wellington

I have no sense of awkwardness or unnaturalness with this phrase. To me it would be a natural response to "for the capital of an allegedly clean, green country Wellington has few hybrid cars". Some of the other constructions you discuss do seem a bit awkward but not this specific example.

Philonski said...

"For instance, could you show us how to add context to ‘I ate many biscuits’, so that many would feel more natural?"

How about this?

I didn't think I ate many biscuits but then I heard that the UK's average biscuit consumption is just 14 a week.

Philonski said...

Hang on, that was a negative construction. Hmm, I will think on.