So I know "alot" should be written "a lot" and I have seen this amusing post on the treatment: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.co.nz/2010/04/alot-is-better-than-you-at-everything.html

However, why is a word like "ahead" OK? Surely they are doing the same thing, aren't they?

I have read the question Why is writing "alot" such a common mistake? but it doesn't answer my question.

Why is "ahead" a valid word and "alot" not?

Any information would be appreciated.

  • Which definition of "ahead" are you using? "a head" meaning per head? or "ahead" meaning further forward? – Catija Aug 17 '16 at 23:11
  • Look! There! In the road, a head! – Drew Aug 18 '16 at 3:03
up vote 13 down vote accepted

No, they aren’t doing the same thing.

It's because these a- words are mostly ancient prepositional phrases in origin that eventually got squished together — but into adverbs, not quantifiers or adjectives. Consider aback, abroad, above, afoot, across, afar, ahead, ajar, akin, alike, aloud, amid, apart, atop, away.

That a- portion was an unstressed version of the word on way back in Old English, according to Oxford Dictionaries Online. As a prefix it most often means on or to something, or in that manner.

So the process that created all these fused prepositional phrases turned to adverbs is not one that would give rise to such things as *alot, *alittle, *abit, *abig, *afat, *acool, *abad, *anold.

Articles and prepositions aren’t the same thing, so to‑day you aren’t going to get an adjective by fusing an article to an adjective. For that we have a newt, an orange, an apron, a nickname. :)

More seriously, this very thing did once happen aforetimes to give us another. Then again, whether other counts as an adjective is dubious in modern analysis. In any event, it is not a productive process now‑a‑days.

  • The words "a lot of" are very common, much more so than "a big quantity" or "a big number" or "a big deal". If enough people misspell a lot then that spelling will be recognised as "non standard" and over time, it'll become a spelling "variant", followed by "dialectal" and then, sometime in the 2040s, the spelling "a lot" will be said to be either archaic/ obsolete or prescriptive. Give it time... – Mari-Lou A Sep 14 at 11:29

The flip answer is that (per the OED) starting in the 1600s, ahead became a nautical term meaning forward, as in full speed ahead, and a head couldn't be used because that was already the term for the forepart of the ship. (Since that's the place for the ship's toilets, head survives today as slang for the loo.)

The real answer is that a string of letters becomes a word when enough people incorporate that string in their vocabulary. Consider alright, which has become an acceptable substitute for all right, possibly influenced by words like almost and altogether.

  • 2
    It should probably be pointed out that "a is a productve prefix from Old English to make adjectives and adverbs from nouns: - A , in native (derived from Old English) words, it most commonly represents Old English an "on" as in alive, asleep, abroad, afoot, etc., forming adjectives and adverbs from nouns; but it also can be Middle English of, as in anew, abreast (1590s); or a reduced form of Old English past participle prefix ge-, as in aware; or the Old English intensive a-, as in arise, awake, ashame. etymonline.com/index.php?term=a-&allowed_in_frame=0 – user66974 Aug 17 '16 at 23:22

Lot means a large number or great amount. It's a standalone word. You wouldn't say I like you lot. You would say l Ike you lots or I like you a lot. Lot holds its same meaning with or without the a.

Head and ahead are 2 completely separate words.

The origins of 'ahead', 'astern', 'aboard', 'abroad' etc have been explained eruditely in previous posts and the distinction between them and 'a lot', 'a little' and so on pointed out. However there is the verb 'to allot' and its synonym 'to apportion'. It seems to me that these are also examples of the a- prefix being used but in these cases to create verbs rather than adverbs and adjectives. In the case of 'to allot' we even have an adjective derived from its past tense as in 'allotted time'. I feel the pull of a linguistic black hole!

The answer is spelling convention. While there is an explanation for how "ahead" differs from "a lot", there is absolutely no reason that we should spell a lot "a lot", while we also spell awhile "awhile" and another "another". The words are certainly not separated in speech by an audible gap, which is what word spacing is supposed to represent. I can't prove it but I suspect that a lot has not become "alot" due to class-obsessed quasi-intellectual pedants, who like telling people they're wrong.

  • 1
    Worth reading: english.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-answer – tmgr Sep 14 at 11:38
  • Word spacing does not represent audible gaps, because in regular speech words are not separated by audible gaps. Constituents may be, and if you want to emphasise, just about anything may be; but in normal circumstances, most words run together with no audible gap at all. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 14 at 14:28
  • Thanks for the answer but the question was about written words not spoken words. – Daniel Tate Sep 16 at 3:29

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