[A] Haven’t they sold many tickets?

[B] Haven’t they sold a lot of tickets?

According to the Cambridge dictionary, there's a difference in meaning here.

When we use much and many in negative questions, we are usually expecting that a large quantity of something isn’t there. When we use a lot of and lots of in negative questions, we are usually expecting a large quantity of something.

Is this distinction clear to native speakers? Do they actually use it and understand it the way it's described?

I'm having a bit of a hard time trying to understand it myself.

Why does using many/much show that we expect there's a small quantity of something?

Why does using a lot of show that we expect a large quantity of something?

  • 1
    Hello, Katherine. First of all one has to look at the exclamatory sentence "Haven’t they sold a lot of tickets!" This informs (when being read) one's take of the second sentence above. The first sentence can't be visualised this way. // However, immediate context will inform the reading to a greater degree. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 12 '19 at 18:14
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    Welcome to SE ELU. This site is for objective questions not those which are a matter of opinion. It is also primarily for native speakers. Therefore don’t ask whether people feel a difference, ask what the difference is. And in general ask on English Language Learners rather than here. See the Tour, which you never completed. – David Sep 12 '19 at 18:20
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    After reading the CED examples in situ, I think that they are confusing the exclamatory observation "Haven't they sold a lot of tickets. [I thought they'd sell quite a few, but not this many!]" with a true question. I'd say "Isn’t there much food left?" and "Isn’t there a lot of food left?" are paraphrases, while "Isn’t there a lot of food left!/." is the exclamatory observation. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 12 '19 at 18:28
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    Yes. There is a difference. The dictionary is more or less correct here. However, it depends on the state of the conversation prior to the question, which is somewhat rhetorical in nature. – Global Charm Sep 13 '19 at 0:57
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because questions about the feelings of native speakers are only likely to give individual subjective answers. – David Oct 13 '19 at 19:09

The examples given in CED need more context to clarify the claims made in the dictionary.

There's a reading of [B], as I think Global implies, in the context:

["But I was hearing that the 'Purple Floyd' concert was looking like being a great success.] Haven’t they [already] sold a lot of tickets?" (ie I'm looking for confirmation that a lot have been sold)

that corresponds to 'When we use a lot of / lots of in negative questions, we are usually expecting there to be a large quantity of something, and soliciting confirmation' (From CED, amended).

Conversely, someone using [A] is certainly expecting, or being quite prepared to be given, confirmation that not many tickets have been sold:

["Why is the concert likely to be cancelled?] Haven’t they sold many tickets?" (I'm expecting the answer "No").


Of course, the exclamatory sentence

[C] "[Wow,] haven’t they sold a lot of tickets./!"

(there isn't one corresponding in form to [A]) must be distinguished, though it almost certainly influences some people's reading of [B]. But in speech, the intonation patterns used in [B] and [C] are quite different.

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"Haven’t they sold many tickets?" implies that ticket sales appear to be weak.

"Haven’t they sold a lot of tickets?" implies that ticket sales appear to be strong.

But a lot depends on the greater context.

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  • I think your assessment of the "a lot" version is not well-founded. As a mere interrogative it could go either way. – Robusto Oct 14 '19 at 0:56
  • @Robusto - As I said, a lot depends on the context. – Hot Licks Oct 14 '19 at 1:14

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