The cool thing about being a linguist is that people ask you usage questions, and no matter what your response, they unquestioningly believe you. And if they don’t at first, they stop questioning you when you condescendingly admonish them that, yes, maybe you’re wrong, but then again you’re being paid not to be wrong about this sort of thing, and so maybe they ought to just trust you. And of course, this trust is almost always unwarranted, just as it was when I did math and people accepted my claims that 5+2 almost certainly equaled 8, just as it was when I was prom king and people foolishly accepted my claims that I was in fact stunningly attractive.

I bring this all up not to cast doubt on the veracity of the advice contained in this blog (I assure you that I am relatively scrupulous in my preparation of these blogposts) but rather to explain why I am delving into the issue of “a lot”. Surely thousands of internet personalities have already written about this, not to mention most every grammar book huckster. But a friend asked me about whether it was a lot or alot last night, and I gave him a quick answer (alot is bad) that I figured I’d check out in the rationality of the smoky early morning light.

The answer is that a lot is always properly two words. The OED does not have an entry for alot, and everywhere else that I’ve found an entry for alot is basically just a pointer to a lot, where one is told not to use alot. I’m not sure how alot came about — to me, it seems obviously wrong. I’ve got a couple of reasons why I analyze it as two words, though; you needn’t just believe me without justification:

1. You can add modifiers into the phrase, as in a whole lot, a great lot, or this little lot (apparently not contradictory in British English).
2. You can switch out each of the words separately, converting a lot to a ton, a bunch, this lot, or you lot.
3. Pluralizing a lot yields lots, not alots

So that’s why I always write a lot, and why I think you’re better off doing the same. While we’re on the topic, you’ll note that a lot of grammarians insist that, however you spell it, a lot is unacceptably colloquial for writing, and furthermore some apparently suggest that you should replace a lot with much. While I am sympathetic to the view that a lot/lots is somewhat colloquial (and thus at times out of place in formal writing), please ignore the second piece of advice. Much and a lot do not often fit in the same environments. If you want to replace a lot/lots of in your writing, I suggest a good/great deal of or a large amount of or a number of, which though basically the same as a lot of, somehow seem more lofty than our humble friend. You can also replace it with much or many, but be sure to choose the right one for the context. (Much talk has been devoted to this topic, but many of the expressed opinions are bunk.) But don’t shy away from a lot! Trust your ears; if it sounds better than the alternatives, stick with it. It has been in the language for almost 200 years for a reason.

Finally, a lot of writers claim that you’re supposed to use a lot only in positive contexts and replace it by much or many in negative ones. That’s definitely not the case. There is nothing wrong with There’s not a lot of sugar in the cupboard. If anyone says there is, demand an explanation — and savor the floundering response.

Summary: It’s not alot, it’s a lot. It’s not all that colloquial. It’s acceptable in negative contexts. And it’s not the same thing as much.

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The Inner Spaces series so far:
I: A lot about alot (10/24/07)
II: All right (10/26/07)
III: Can not be split? (10/27/07)
IV: It’s Been a While (01/14/08)