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Monday, May 5, 2014

Lots about "a lot"

This picture, which has been circulating on Facebook, bugs me.


It bugs me a lot.

"Of course it does," you say.  "You're the Word Lady; it must drive you CRAAAAZY when people misspell 'a lot'."

But that's not what bugs me.

What bugs me is the condescending, judgemental, hectoring, "I'm smarter than you" attitude that it reflects. Especially because the people who spell "alot" are actually showing more intuitive sense for the language than the witty person who came up with the absolutely false comparison to "acantaloupe" and "aporkchop" in this image. Ha ha ha, aren't we all smart, we'd never write "acantaloupe"; only idiots would do that. 

But "a lot" is not like "a cantaloupe". "A cantaloupe" is two lexical units, the article and the noun. You can stick any number of adjectives (inexpensive, large, ripe, juicy, Ontario-grown, etc.) between the article and the noun. You can change the indefinite article to a definite one or a possessive adjective: "the cantaloupe", "get your hands off my cantaloupe!" or even not have an article at all: "I love cantaloupe".

You cannot do any of this with "a lot" because it is functioning most of the time as one lexical unit, not as an article and a noun, but as an adverb. 

"I like ballet a lot". 

You can't say "I like ballet the lot" or "I like ballet a huge/great/big lot", though you can say "I like ballet a whole lot" (don't ask me why you can say that, though I am happy to explain why I like ballet a whole lot!).

It's odd that we don't have a one-word adverb that we can use in a sentence like this. Theoretically, we should be able to say "I like ballet much", but we can't even do that idiomatically. We have to say "I like ballet very much", unless we use the jocular "muchly", which started out as quite a respectable adverb.

"A lot" in its adverbial use is fairly recent in English, dating from the mid-19th century. But it has really caught on:

But all the same, you may say, it should still be spelled as two words. It's not as if anyone can think of another example in the English language where an article/determiner and its following noun became fused as the two became perceived as one lexical unit.



Anyone. Another. 

You see, there's nothing to stop us doing this when it makes sense to do so. Oops. "Nothing". There's another one. 

Let me make myself clear. Yes, the correct way to spell "a lot" is -- at the moment -- as two words, not as one. But what determines that it is the correct spelling? Convention, that is all.  Considering "alot" as the shibboleth that identifies the illiterate, ridiculing people who misspell it, and making false analogies involving cantaloupes and pork chops says more about the ridiculers than about the ridiculed.There are better ways to teach correct spelling.

And by the way, the verb meaning "to apportion" is spelled "allot".

For the etymology of "cantaloupe", and a tasty cantaloupe cake recipe, click here.

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  1. Some writers rephase the writing to avoid "a lot" using much or many, as in I enjoy ballet very much. But try to stop using a lot in your speech. You will likely catch yourself using a lot, well a lot.

  2. What about alright vs all right? Same deal?

  3. Unknown, I'm sure Wordlady has a great answer for you, but basically, it's a similar thing: "all right" is the convention. And then there's "all together" and "altogether" and "all ready" and "already." :-)

  4. I've always found it strange that awhile is sometimes closed up and sometimes not, while a lot is always open. Why should adverbial awhile close up but not a lot?

    1. awhile is a very good example of the same phenomenon, isn't it?

  5. The English language is whacky. But I'm still a firm believer that people should be taught the correct way to execute it (in writing and in speaking), so they can move forward from there. If they want to make up the way they say or write things, awesome... But at least try to master (or know something of) its conventions first.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.