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Could you please tell me which sentence is correct?

  1. It's not worth learning many a language when you haven't got the opportunity to use them.
  2. It's not worth learning many a language when you haven't got the opportunity to use it.

Until now, I've only known that "many a + singular noun" takes a singular verb. Unfortunately, I've never heard about the correct pronoun for it.

Before I posted this question, I'd done some searching and this is the only one that I've found useful. But it seems to be a mere opinion, not an officially accepted usage or something like that. What I really want is a widely accepted usage.

Please enlighten me. Thanks in advance.

P/s: This is not a duplicate of this question. In other words, I've already known the use of "many" vs "many a". You can clearly see that my question isn't about "many" vs "many a". In addition to that, the link above refers to a question that doesn't even mention anything about "pronoun" while mine is mainly about it.

  • 3
    You should probably try this question at English Language Learners about how to judge and apply basic number agreement. – Mitch Feb 9 '17 at 14:51
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    @Mitch this construction is weird enough that I think it fits here. It's not a simple case of number agreement. – 1006a Feb 9 '17 at 15:32
  • 2
    @Mitch If you're referring to the question linked by Robusto, there is no mention of pronouns in that question or its answers. All of the examples are of a simple many a noun + verb structure, without any reference back to the original. If there's another duplicate that does address this question, please point it out. – 1006a Feb 9 '17 at 16:10
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    Ignoring the main question about the number of 'many a X', the construction is "It's not worth learning many a language." sounds really 'off' to me, very unnatural. I'm not sure if it is because 'many a X' is archaic or if it is ungrammatical. "I ate many a danish"...I guess that's OK, sort of, if I were knocked upside the head and talking. But the I'd say, "They tasted good" not "It tasted good". "It's not worth learning many languages" is the natural way to say it. – Mitch Feb 9 '17 at 16:19
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    Many a N constructions are archaic and uncommon. One encounters them in poetry and old writing, but not in speech. So their syntax is pretty primitive, and there is no rule for number agreement with anaphors, so pronouns can work any way you like. – John Lawler Feb 9 '17 at 17:45
38

Neither of those sounds correct to me. Many a is a rather unusual construction: as you know, it takes a singular verb because each individual of the "many" acts or is acted on one at a time. However, when referring back to the many whatevers, we ordinarily use another "group of individuals" structure: either them all or each one rather than a simple they or it.

Some examples of what I mean:

Since those days I have had many a good dog at my side and many a good time beside them, and I have loved them all . . . . (A. Hunter Smith, A Life Afield, 2014)

Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all (Charles K. Harris, "After the Ball", 1891)

I've been to many a dentist and each one has been a exercise in some kind of torture. (Scott McIntyre, Facebook dentist review, 2016)

How many a year has passed and gone
Many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a first friend
And each one I've never seen again.
(Bob Dylan, "Bob Dylan's Dream", 1963)

So for your example, you would need either

It's not worth learning many a language when you haven't got the opportunity to use them all.

or

It's not worth learning many a language when you haven't got the opportunity to use each one.

Also, I will point out that (as these examples demonstrate) many a is a fairly poetical/literary phrase, and isn't very common in regular conversation. Use it mainly when you want to evoke a more lyrical feeling.

  • You literally nailed it. This is exactly what I've been looking for :)). Thanks a lot. – Huy Feb 9 '17 at 15:48
  • +1, and good arguing on this question not being a duplicate. However, I don't feel "each one" is appropriate in the example sentence; i.e. it sounds wrong to my ear. "Each and every one" would work. That said, it sounds wrong in the Bob Dylan lyrics too; that should maybe be "I've never seen any of them again"... but then the whole quote from that song sounds off to me anyway. – AndyT Feb 9 '17 at 16:29
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    @Huy No, he did not literally nail it. :) – Masked Man Feb 10 '17 at 4:20
  • On the other hand, I find “Many a language is not worth learning if you haven't got the opportunity to use it” perfectly fine and, in fact, more natural sounding. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 10 '17 at 7:18
  • I have thought long and hard over this question, and the above answer just about covers it. TO QUOTE: '...many a is a fairly poetical/literary phrase, and isn't very common in regular conversation...'. May I add that there are times I will use this form when 'chatting' to my husband, I would not use it in everyday conversation - or with a second language learner/user. – dougal 5.0.0 Feb 10 '17 at 13:36
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In general, you use the singular with "many a":

many a man came to try his luck, but none could untangle the knot.

The problem is that when you use "many a" you need to treat it as a collection of individual items, not as a group. For example, neither of the two following sentences work:

*Many a man can carry only a small stone, but working together, he could move a mountain.
*Many a man can carry only a small stone, but working together, they could move a mountain.

(although the second is not as bad). You have to drop the "many a ..." construction to get this sentence to work:

Many men can carry only a small stone, but working together, they could move a mountain.

You're treating "many a language" as a group in your sentence.

  • Ooh, you're a plural-neither guy! :) – tchrist Feb 9 '17 at 15:19
  • I like your answer better than mine +1 :) – Hank Feb 9 '17 at 15:22
0

I agree with Yosef about using the word "times". I had already begun to write a similar comment when I noticed his comment. The word "times" is basically unspoken. The core nature of the problem is that the subject of the sentence is effectively a frequency statistic of certain events or attributes. The pronoun should refer to that statistic, not the outcomes measured by the statistic. Some of the published examples do not do this and (I believe) are thus flawed.

Many a time I am not a master of eloquence and for those times (note plural) when I've spoken awkwardly, I apologize.

  • Yosef's answer has been deleted, so you might want to edit your post accordingly. – Mari-Lou A Feb 10 '17 at 17:30

protected by tchrist Feb 10 '17 at 1:23

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