‘Many’, ‘much’, ‘a lot of’, and ‘lots of’ in English

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more.

These four phrases, “many”, “much”, “a lot of”, and “lots of”, all express a similar idea of a large amount of something, but they are not completely interchangeable.

The first important difference is that “many” can be used only with countable nouns in the plural (e.g. “many trees”, “many houses”, “many people”), and “much” can only be used with uncountable (mass) nouns in the singular (e.g. “much water”, “much wood”, “much happiness”), for example:

correct There’s not much water in the swimming pool.
wrong There’s not many water in the swimming pool.
correct There are many people in the crowd.
wrong There are much people in the crowd.

There is no such distinction for “a lot of” and “lots of”, which can be used with both, i.e. both “a lot of/lots of people” and “a lot of/lots of water” are correct. However, notice that when “a lot of” is used with a plural noun, the verb is in the plural too, even though “a lot” itself is in the singular (you can find a more detailed explanation of this phenomenon here):

correct A lot of people don’t know the word “onychophagia”.
wrong A lot of people doesn’t know the word “onychophagia”.

In a similar fashion, “lots of” with a singular noun is used with a singular verb:

correct Lots of water is being wasted every day.
wrong Lots of water are being wasted every day.

The difference between “much/many”, “a lot of”, and “lots of”

The most important difference between “many”/“much” and “a lot of”/“lots of” is that the latter can’t be used when asking about an amount (“how much”, “how many”) or, usually, when used within a phrase (e.g. “too many, “as much as”, “so many”):

correct How many people were there?
wrong How lot of people were there?
correct We have as much money as they have.
wrong We have as lots of money as they have.

Note, however, that “a lot more”, “a lot fewer”, and “a lot less” are completely acceptable in informal communication.

In virtually all other situations, “many”/“much”, “a lot of” and “lots of” mean essentially the same, but there is an important difference in register. “Many” and “much” sound quite formal, “a lot of” is informal, and “lots of” is even less formal:

There are many people at the party. (very formal)
There are a lot of people at the party. (informal)
There are lots of people at the party. (even more informal)

“Many” and “much” in affirmative (positive) sentences (like the one above) sound so formal you will almost never hear these in a normal conversation; you should only use them in writing and in very formal speech.

In negative sentences, however, “many” and “much” sound quite natural even in normal speech; there is nothing wrong with saying, for example:

I don’t have much money. (fine in formal and informal contexts)
I don’t have a lot of money. (fine in an informal context)
I don’t have lots of money. (even more informal)

This article was based on my guide to the most common mistakes in English, which explains many similar topics. Why don’t you check it out?