"much" vs. "a lot of"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Feb 6 00:25:56 UTC 2014

There has indeed been a lot of ink spilled over the negative polarity status of "much".  Essentially, in most environments "much" needs a negative "licenser", as those working on such phenomena call it, much as do "any", "ever", "yet", "lift a finger", etc.  That's why "I don't drink much coffee" sounds better than "I drink much coffee".  Depending on the syntactic frame, "much" can occur in other contexts without a negative licenser, e.g. before comparatives ("I'm feeling much better") or in equatives ("She drinks as much as he does") or in a few other contexts ("he eats much too much").  But basically a rule of thumb is that in most environments in which both "a lot of" and "much" can occur, the latter is a negative polarity item.  There was a book I read once and later cited that looked at Agatha Christie novels and showed that the occurrences of "much" without a negative licenser are predominantly those uttered by non-native speakers, e.g. Hercule Poirot.

(This is a bit oversimplified in that "negative polarity items" will also typically occur in questions ("Does he drink much?") and other contexts that are not strictly negative but highlight the possibility of a negation ("I'll be {surprised/?relieved} if he has much to say about it").   But these are again typical characteristics of negative polarity items, not just "much".   Notice too that while we can say "Much *he* knows/cares about it", that can only be interpreted ironically, i.e. = "Not much…".


On Feb 5, 2014, at 6:14 PM, Dan Goncharoff wrote:

> Isn't "much" an adverb and "a lot of" adjectival?
> Sent from my iPhone
>> On Feb 5, 2014, at 5:14 PM, "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at att.net> wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
>> Subject:      "much" vs. "a lot of"
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> A friend (born 1940s and remained in Boston area) remarked that she
>> would say "we have a lot of snow in New England" but not "we have
>> much snow in New England".  So would I (NYC).  We wondered about
>> that, about other verbs and objects, and negatives vs. positives.  Such as:
>> "I have a lot of coffee."
>> "I don't drink much coffee"
>> Has there been any analysis?  Is "much' vs. "a lot of" regional?
>> Joel (who does not possess the usual reference books, and is
>> momentarily possessed by snow).
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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