Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Too Much

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2011

Back in October, I wrote about the opinion that thank you much is ungrammatical. I quoted a comment I left on one website where the issue came up:

“Thank you much” IS a complete sentence, at least if you accept “Thank you” as a complete (albeit noncanonical) sentence in the first place. If you object to “much” instead of “very much”, note that it appears alone in questions and negative sentences, e.g. “he doesn’t talk much”, “Does he talk much?” If you’re objecting to the use of plain “much” outside these “negative polarity contexts”, that’s a different matter, because that does sound odd in present-day English.

In the course of writing the thank you much post, I came across this video for learners of English as a foreign language:

In it, a teacher named Valen explains how to use much, many, and a lot of. Her explicit message is that much goes with mass nouns; many goes with count nouns; and a lot of goes with either. But in her examples, she seems to send the message that unadorned much is a no-no. Valen’s first two examples with much are:

I drank too much water.
Our teacher gave us too much homework.

Then she moves on to an example with many: Many cars are equipped with GPS systems. After that, she illustrates the mistake of putting many with a mass noun:

*I drank many coffee.

She then reiterates that since coffee is a mass noun, it can’t go with many, but can go with much. She erases many from the sentence, and replaces it not with much, as she seemed to be getting ready to do, but with too much:

I drank too much coffee.

Never a word of explanation why she’s doing this. (Also noted: She pronounces /str/ as [ʃtr], at least in the word abstract.)

Since that post last month, I’ve been thinking more about whether much is becoming (or has become) a negative polarity item (NPI). Whatever its status, it’s certainly not purely an NPI, since there are so many positive polarity contexts in which it sounds OK; for example, in the company of modifiers such as very (as in Thank you ~ much) and too (as in the video), much doesn’t sound bad at all.

As it turns out, Ji Won Lee at SUNY Buffalo has been looking into the question of NPI much, using an arsenal of corpora to find out. On her web page are handouts from several presentations on this topic. Her findings include that the development of much as an NPI was followed by the rise of a lot of/lots of, and that the shift to mostly-NPI much (and to some extent many, too) happened pretty quickly, between the late 1890s and 1940.

UPDATE, Nov. 29, 2011: Joe Kessler (in the comments) and JillianP (via Twitter) and Ji Won herself (in a polite email) have made me aware that I chose the wrong gendered pronouns to refer to Ji Won in the post. I have made the corrections, and apologize for the error. I’m also embarrassed that I didn’t remember meeting Ji Won at LSA 2011; she reminded me that she had come to look at my poster, and I see in my notes that indeed she did.

11 Responses to “Too Much”

  1. Michael Conner said

    But: I didn’t drink much coffee.

  2. Philip Whitman said

    Do you chew much chewing gum?

    • Jonathon said

      I believe that NPIs also work in interrogative sentences, so you can say, “Do you have any gum?” and “I don’t have any gum” but not “I have any gum.” It sounds like much is moving into the same territory. “I have much gum” sounds somewhat awkward and archaic at best.

    • Neal said

      Jonathon is right; questions are one context in which negative polarity items are allowed.

  3. I believe Ji Won’s preferred pronouns are “she” and “her.”

  4. Ran said

    You say that much isn’t “purely an NPI”, because too and very and so on can license it even in positive polarity contexts. But could we say that unmodified much has become an NPI for some speakers? Or is that stretching the terminology too far?

  5. Hi, I teach EFL, and the standard approach is that both much and many are used mainly in negatives and interrogatives, and that native speakers will usually use (a) lot(s) of in positive statements. But positive much and many are not discounted, rather they are seen as being more formal.

    “They are unusual in affirmative clauses except after so, as and too … In a formal style, much and many are not so unnatural in affirmative clauses” Swan – Practical English Usage (Oxford)

    We’d normally teach too much etc separately, not as in this video.

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