Many a man died in that battle.

My understanding of many mean more than 2 and a man mean 1. But in the sentence above, these two words are put together and I wonder what does it really mean? How can you have many one man died in that battle?

  • @Terah FYR, we can't close a question as a duplicate of other Stack Exchange sites. You can try to find it as I did on ELU and flag the question as duplicate. Then, this question will be placed in a review queue. That really helps the community deal with duplicate questions. – user140086 Feb 27 '16 at 4:38

This is what Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary has to say about this (maybe a bit too lengthy), on its Ask the Editor subpage:


The word many has two common functions:

A) It is often used as an adjective that describes a plural noun and tells us that there is a large number of that noun, as in these examples:
1. She worked hard for many years. 2. They were one of the many, many families that came to watch the parade._

B) Many is also commonly used as a pronoun, to mean “many people or things,” as in these examples:
1. Some people will come to the meeting, but many [=many people] will not.
2. We were hoping to sell our old books, but many [=many books] were not in good condition._
3. I know some of the people here, but not very many.

Many a/an...

The fixed expression many a/an... is more formal than the single word many, and it is much less common. Many a/an... is used mainly in literary writing and newspapers. Like the adjective and pronoun many discussed above, many a/an... is used to indicate a large number of something. However, it takes a singular noun, which can be followed by a singular verb. Here are some examples:
1. It remained a mystery for many a year. [=for many years]
2. I've been there many a time. [=many times]
3. Many a politician has promised to make changes. [Politician and has are singular.]

And here's Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, saying:

many a (formal): used with a singular noun and verb to mean ‘a large number of’:
Many a good man has been destroyed by drink.

So, they practically mean the same thing, but the second one is more formal, and less common in modern English.

  • 3
    FWIW, I find it odd that that dictionary characterizes its use as more "formal". It is maybe old-fashioned, but I don't think of it as particularly formal. I can imagine farmers, pirates, and common country folk, especially in former times, saying "many a lad", "many a day", etc. – Drew Feb 27 '16 at 2:53
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    The problem I had was not with your answer but with the dictionary. – Drew Feb 27 '16 at 3:09
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    @Drew More probably, that accounts for it being more literary, not less formal. – Færd Feb 27 '16 at 8:51
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    @PLL I tend to agree with you two, but I don't understand why a word or construction can't be from two or more registers. There are 1757 hits for many a in COCA, 170 of which in the spoken subcategory, 507 in fiction, 545 in magazine, 330 in newspaper, and 205 in academic. If the subcategories are of the same size (which is true, I guess), then it's probably be true that many a is formal and literary. – Færd Feb 27 '16 at 14:24
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    @Drew: I certainly didn’t mean to suggest it’s never been in ordinary use! In calling it literary or poetic, I was talking about current usage. // That said, one can’t generally assume that the language of folk songs was originally colloquial. Many oral traditions have had special poetic registers — language associated specifically with songs and poems. “Ordinary, common folk” — or, at least, the singers and storytellers among them — have always been just as capable of switching registers and playing with language as literary poets. – PLL Feb 27 '16 at 21:19

It doesn't say "many one man."

Normally, we would say "Many men died in battle." It's a simple factual statement.

"Many a man died in battle" has a similar meaning; it's just a different way of saying it. I'm not sure if there's a term for this kind of speech, but it sounds more literary, dramatic or poetic (to me, at least).


Merriam-Webster's analysis is lacking one very important aspect of this use, in that "many a man" is just a tried and true method (or literary device) employed to add emphasis. The disagreement between the plural "many" and the singular "man" serve to grab the reader or listener's attention, and in this particular example, to individualize what is a collective tragedy. The horror of watching man after man (many a man) die in battle.

IMO Merriam-Webster could do more to explain why such phrasing is used by writers and journalist.

  • This is not an intrinsic feature of this usage. If it was used in an informal context, then we could consider your theory as a possibility. – Færd Feb 27 '16 at 5:33
  • @Fard: I'm not sure that I understand what you mean by intrinsic feature, but I was taught this usage (for emphasis) in grade school. In general, don't you find that any less than common choice of words draws attention? – Egox Feb 27 '16 at 11:31
  • I meant it's not emphatic by itself. If I was telling a war story at some bar and I said "Many a man died in that battle", it'd be in order to draw more attention, but if I was writing a formal history paper, then probably it'd be equivalent to many men. The context decides it, and no context is presented here. – Færd Feb 27 '16 at 14:32

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