Ask AZ: many in affirmative statements

Frédéric Dichtel asks, in a comment on a totally unrelated posting of mine (and also on Facebook):

Could you possibly devote one on the use of the unmodified quantifier many in affirmative statements?

The traditional rule states that this use belongs to formal style. But what about the following sentences extracted from the COCA American Corpus? Aren’t they neutral in style?
  Cryptochromes were discovered in plants many years ago.
  In many ways, my family’s story is universal.
  There are many risks for any outside company.

Could it be that the formality of many differs according to whether it is subject, object etc.?

Many readers will be unfamiliar with the “traditional rule” Dichtel refers to. It comes from usage advice in the ESL literature (so it’s significant that Dichtel is not a native speaker of English). In this literature, writers are told to use many (or much) when it’s modified by a degree adverbial (very, so, that, how, etc.); this is in effect a grammatical requirement, since the alternative a lot isn’t available in this context. Writers are advised to use many (and much) in questions and under negation (in preference to a lot) —

Were there many people at the party?
There weren’t many people at the party.

but otherwise (that is, in affirmative statements) writers are told that many and much are formal in style, while a lot is neutral.

The advice literature meant for native speakers tells a somewhat different story. This literature generally misses the connection with “negative polarity” contexts (questions and negation) — not surprisingly, because much of this literature maintains that a lot is informal in style, too informal for use in formal writing (a claim that might have been true at the turn of the 20th century, but is not true now).

The case of much vs. a lot is treated at some length (with links to Language Log postings and other literature) here; much of this carries over to many, though there are some differences. In particular, the “formality effect” seems stronger for much than for many, though for both there are contexts in which they can occur unmodified in affirmative statements without conveying formality of style, as in Dichtel’s examples from COCA. (I have speculated that there are indeed differences according to syntactic function (subject vs. object, in particular), and differences according to the verb in the sentence, but these speculations aren’t easy to investigate.)

7 Responses to “Ask AZ: many in affirmative statements”

  1. Frederic Says:

    Dear Mr Zwicky,

    Thank you for this informative post on many.

    So are you saying that many might be, in affirmative statements, collocated with certain verbs (“it offers many advantages”) and not others (“I bought many presents”)?

    When it comes to “naturalness”, an English-speaking friend gave me two examples
    1. I have many friends (formal but natural)
    2. I saw many fish while snorkelling (unnatural and stilted)

    Why is many acceptable in the first example and not the second one?

    Best regards


  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Frédéric: I see a difference in both pairs you offer here, but it’s fairly subtle — a matter of degrees of naturalness, rather than (un)acceptability or (un)grammaticality.

    Collecting reliable judgments of naturalness and/or degrees of formality is remarkably hard to do, and I’ve come not to trust even my own judgments. But the task of getting good data from corpus searches is also formidable.

    But until one or both of these tasks is accomplished and we have some knowledge of the factors involved, there’s no way to say *why* two particular examples differ; that difference is just a raw fact (if it’s a fact at all).

    Until then, we can play with examples, but probably not conclude very much.

  3. Frederic Says:

    Dear Professor Zwicky

    Thank you very much for your enlightening comments. I have enjoyed this conversation on ‘many’.

    I have considered 200 sentences from COCA, which feature the quantifier ‘many’ occurring unmodified in affirmative statements. The nouns following ‘many’ then belonged to the following categories:

    54% referred to people (many people, many women…)
    13%: human activities or groups (businesses, abortions…)
    14%: abstract concepts (many ways, many cases…)
    13%: time references (many years, many times…)
    4%: places (many places, many areas…)
    2%: non living objects (many books, many games…)

    I have therefore a strong suspicion that ‘many’ has an affinity for personal and abstract nouns (including time references), and is nearly incompatible with concrete objects. Could this assumption hold any merit?

    By the way, are there any “grammar words” in English such as articles or quantifiers which feature an affinity for personal nouns?

    Could the etymology of the word ‘many’ tell us why there would be such an affinity?

    Thank you again for this conversation.

    Best Regards

    Frédéric Dichtel

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Frédéric Dichtel: “I have therefore a strong suspicion that ‘many’ has an affinity for personal and abstract nouns (including time references), and is nearly incompatible with concrete objects. Could this assumption hold any merit?”

    You’ve made the first step in investigating this possibility. But these figures have to be balanced against the overall frequency of the various sorts of nouns. At first glance, these figures don’t strike me as unusual; personal nouns predominate in English. (Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to do the sampling carefully and to run the statistics.)

  5. Frederic Says:

    Thank you so much Professor, this has been a fascinating conversation.

    Anyway, it wouln’t be the first time that a determiner specialises in personal nouns. After all, the possessive case seems to do just that!

    You’re right, I would need to know the overall frequency of these nouns but how would I go about doing that? (Sorry for asking you this candid question, but I’m a complete layman). Would the answer lie in literature? Could anybody help me with this?

    Now, you’ve hypothesized that many may have an affinity for certain syntactic functions (notably subject). Do you know of any determiner in English that has such an affinity?

    Thank you again Professor. I’m looking forward to your answers.

  6. Cy Rebecca Says:

    I’m Brazilian and have been teaching English as a Foreign Language for over 20 years and only today I figured out that I’m not supposed to say “many” in positive sentences. I’m in shock! (lol). I’ve always said: “I have many friends”. Shame on me!!!

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