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I am unable to decide if I should use 'many' to express "many people" in an academic writing. It goes like:

Many claim that ambiguity is a result of an inefficient parsing.

Do you see any problem with this sentence in a formal way? Should I cite this (I know this is a separate question but well)?

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    There is no grammatical problem. But it is, as you noted, a weasel word. If you’re going to cite it, name the particular person or persons you’re citing, don’t just waffle around with “many”.
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 27, 2019 at 13:01
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    One man's many is another man's some is another man's [misguided] few. Aug 27, 2019 at 13:14
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    It's perfectly correct and common. Simply, the subject people is omitted and many takes the role.
    – shogun
    Aug 27, 2019 at 13:22
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    Many of its proponents claims or Many of its detractors claim
    – Lambie
    Aug 27, 2019 at 14:30
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    Many are called but few are chosen.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 27, 2019 at 16:49

1 Answer 1

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Many is used as a pronoun in academic writing, but you want to avoid using it when the situation demands precision.

Let me use an example with "many claim." As of this writing, JSTOR turns up 1,425 results for the collocation "many claim." Google Scholar has many more (about 20,000), with the caveat that some of the results do not use "many" as a pronoun and "claim" as a verb. So it is used in academic writing. I'll cite two actual uses, describe why these may be valid, and compare that to a more prescriptivist approach modeled in the comments to this question.

First, this article (Frankham, Jo. “Peer Education: The Unauthorised Version.” British Educational Research Journal, vol. 24, no. 2, 1998, pp. 179–193. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1501773) uses the collocation in the article's abstract to describe a position popular with many "who work with teenagers and young adults":

This article takes an irreverent look at the premises on which peer education has been founded and considers whether the approach is the panacea that so many claim.

Second, this editorial (Winchester, Ian. “EDITORIAL: Education and the Pace of Technological Change.” The Journal of Educational Thought (JET) / Revue De La Pensée Éducative, vol. 44, no. 3, 2010, pp. 193–196. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23767066) uses the collocation to qualify a claim - many people claim that the electronic computer is the source of modern advancement:

But there was one invention, dependent upon the thought of Bertrand Russell and the early 20th century logicians, that many claim is the source of all our rapid change today and the reason we have to think that we are all being left quickly behind the pace of such change.

Both these uses, on their face, seem valid. One is from an abstract. Another is from an editorial. The construction being at the beginning of the sentence would theoretically make little difference. Why would some people insist that many claim are "weasel words," "vague," or otherwise inappropriate for academic writing?

Precision is a premium in academic writing.1 There are specific contexts where less precision is acceptable - in an article abstract one must by necessity generalize since it functions as a summary of what the article accomplishes; in an editorial appealing to "many" is acceptable if the readers would understand and accept that claim, that is, if it were uncontroversial and the argument did not rely on precision.

However, if you are writing a literature review or an academic essay and you use an appeal to "many" in a pronoun, you shouldn't be surprised if readers, editors, or professors respond with "who?" Academic readers want sources if the claim being made is important to your argument. If you use "many" when it makes sense to specify examples of who makes that claim, you are sacrificing precision and compromising your credibility.

For that reason, avoid using many as a pronoun unless the formality is somewhat reduced (as in an editorial) and unless the rhetorical situation allows it (an abstract where the many has already been referred to and is clear).

1 See Ott, Douglas E. "Hedging, Weasel Words, and Truthiness in Scientific Writing." JSLS, vol 22, issue 4, 2018.

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    I think it is context that counts, not formality.
    – Lambie
    Aug 27, 2019 at 14:29
  • That's fair. I think the two are entwined, context and register. I wouldn't be self-conscious of using "many" the pronoun in colloquial speech (a big, broad context). The register of academic writing (another big, broad context) makes me much more deliberate in general about pronominal use, and from there rhetorical concerns (including the immediate context) determine exact usage. So formality helps describe a general approach to academic usage; context explicates what to do in the specific situation. Aug 27, 2019 at 14:46
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    If the writer has already defined a group of people about which he is writing, it's fine. Otherwise, it ain't. :)
    – Lambie
    Aug 27, 2019 at 15:18
  • That's one factor. There are others, as Ian Winchester illustrates. :) Aug 27, 2019 at 15:22

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