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Can someone please elucidate the difference between "many" and "many a"? In what context of usage should we add an extra "a" beside the word "many"?

For example:

  • Many times, I had seen that . . . .
  • Many a times, I had seen that . . . .

I do not know if the example is accurate enough to support my question, but I would like to know the difference between how they are used.

1
  • Here’s one sentence where I think “many a [noun]” can’t be substituted to “many [noun]s”: “Many scientists were gathered here.” Sep 5, 2020 at 13:00

6 Answers 6

39

Many a is a somewhat archaic or poetic or literary way of saying many.

Many times I had seen her in my dreams.

Note that it takes a singular complement:

Many a time I had seen her in my dreams.

EDIT

Just to throw another stick of wood onto this fire, there's another similar formulation frequently seen in literature:

Many's the time I've seen her in my dreams.

And I'll also add a quote from Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice):

Shylock: Signior Antonio, many a time and oft / In the Rialto you have rated me / About my moneys and my usances

The question this raises is, did Shakespeare recognize a difference between "many a time" and "oft"? Did it mean something more to him than how we would see it today, as interchangeable with "often"? Or was he gratuitously padding out a line to fit the meter?

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  • 1
    There is a slight difference in meaning for me, in that "many a" regards the items distributively (like "each").
    – Colin Fine
    May 16, 2011 at 12:02
  • @Colin Fine: That sounds to me like a distinction without a difference. Can you explain further what you mean by distributively? I think it could apply equally to the other construction.
    – Robusto
    May 16, 2011 at 12:28
  • 6
    I'm not sure that I can explain. It is subtle, but very real to me. There are probably few situations which could not be described equally well by either expression, but the speaker is regarding them differently (rather like aspect: the difference is not the situation described but in how it is related). "Many a", like "each", focuses on each individual instance, whereas "many", like "all", focuses on the whole collection.
    – Colin Fine
    May 17, 2011 at 11:58
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    Another example reinforcing Robusto's explanation: Most cancer biologists and oncologists take for granted that the first principles of cancer biology are genetic. Indeed, many a cancer-related publication opens with the sentence: “Cancer is a disease of the genes.”
    – r_31415
    Nov 22, 2012 at 3:40
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    As far as many a time and oft: I don't think it was gatuitous padding or that Shakespeare saw a difference between many a time and oft; I think what he meant was more of many a time and oft in the Rialto, essentially saying "you've done this many times, and often do it in public".
    – yoozer8
    Apr 3, 2013 at 16:51
21

Both many and many a convey the same meaning that is "a large number of". The only difference is that many is used with countable plural nouns followed by plural verb while many a is followed by a singular countable noun and takes a singular verb with it. E.g.:

  1. Many soldiers were killed in the war.
  2. Many a soldier was killed in the war.

Both statements have the same meaning. Many a is used in formal sense.

1
  • This should be the accepted answer since it addresses how to use them both. +1
    – RedCaio
    Apr 5, 2016 at 5:20
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"Many" indicates a large quantity. "Many a" indicates a non-small quantity, like "quite a few" or "quite a lot" (English is so bloody illogical).

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  • Welcome to English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. It is a good idea to read existing answers before writing your own. A lot of the time the answer you want to write is already written, and sometimes you can learn something new about something you thought you understood! This is the case here, as "many a" under any context other than archaic prose, is grammatically incorrect.
    – Sam
    Aug 14, 2014 at 21:32
  • 3
    @Sam it is not grammatically incorrect. Aug 15, 2014 at 9:04
  • @MattЭллен I still suck at conflating ungrammatical and unused... You are right, but my point was that it is only really used in a hearkening back to times of old/gather round the fire and let me tell you a tale/dramatic literary sense, it is not common parlance, nor is it grammatically correct in the context of the question ('times' vs time). A fairer comment would then be that this answer isn't clear in addressing the key point of the word following the 'a' necessarily being singular, and is redundant either way.
    – Sam
    Aug 16, 2014 at 11:29
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'Many a' is not grammatically incorrect and is often included in texts in the Cambridge Proficiency Examination as well as the Michigan Proficiency Grammar multiple choice section.

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    While that is true, it doesn't address the difference, which is the crux of the question.
    – Chenmunka
    Mar 15, 2016 at 8:50
  • I agree with @Chenmunka on this. It's a decent start to an answer, but needs a comparison with "many" and explanation of the difference between them to be helpful. Mar 15, 2016 at 9:06
0

Yes you can use 'a/an' after many.
This is a more formal or old-fashioned expression I suppose.
Like the adjective - (She was depressed for many months) and
pronoun form (Some workers will be willing to work on sunday, but many will not.) of many, Many a/an is used to indicate a large number of something. However it takes a singular noun.

Some Examples:
She remained hidden from the public for many a year. [for many years]
I've been to Paris many a time. [= many times]
Many a politician has promised to make changes. [Politician and has are singular].

-1

I agree that many a is archaic. However, I feel there is a slight difference in meaning when compared to 'many'. Example:

Many geniuses had failed to crack the Enigma.

Many a genius had failed to crack the Enigma.

Hasn't the second sentence imply each of the geniuses failed individually and singly? The first sentence does not have this meaning.

This is my personal opinion presented here for others' consideration.

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