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(a): The countries did not have much of a choice when it came to vaccines.

(b): The countries did not have much choice when it came to vaccines.

Are the sentences above semantically identical? Are there any differences between them? Which one is more natural?

I am particularly curious about whether these two expressions--much of a (countable noun) and much (countable noun) without an indefinite article--are always interchangeable.

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    I think 'did not have much choice' could imply that there were only a few alternatives to choose from, while 'did not have much of a choice' is an ironic way of saying 'had no choice'. Seeking to confirm my idea, I found this Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 7:09
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    I can't accept 'choice' being a count usage in 'much of a choice'. As with 'She took a pride in her appearance', these are non-count (or better considered as fused idioms): you can't have 'much of 7 choices' or 'she took two prides, one in her appearance ...'. Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 17:14
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    Yes this is absolutely a situation where 'choice' acting as a mass noun rather than a count noun. The degree of choice is a continuous magnitude, not a set of discrete choices being counted.
    – smithkm
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 22:33

1 Answer 1

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First, please note that your expressions should include not, and that:

in (a) much is a pronoun and choice is a countable noun.
in (b) much is an adjective, but this time choice is an uncountable noun. (You cannot say *The countries did not have much choices - you would have to use many instead of much to be able to use choice as a countable noun in the plural).

To put it in more grammatical language:

In much choice, much functions as determiner with the noun as head of the NP; much here is restricted to occurrence with non-count singular nouns. In much of a choice, much is fused determiner-head with an of phrase complement; the noun in that PP must be a count singular determined by a. (CaGEL p. 533 - I have introduced your examples in the quotation for simplification)

And yes, there is difference in meaning:

  • not much choice merely negates quantity, there aren't many options

whereas

  • not much of a choice emphasises that you have an option, but it isn't really freely chosen. Or the choice is poor.

not much is defined as:

a small amount of (something)

  • There's not much food in the house. (M-W)

Not much of a emphasises quality rather:

If you describe something as not much of a particular type of thing, you mean that it is small or of poor quality. (Collins)

  • It hasn't been much of a holiday.

CaGEL analyses this structure but with a different use, which the authors call Quantification of predicatives. Although it is a different instance, it is worth noting what they say about much of a + noun:

In Ed isn't [much of a husband], plain much, comparative more and less, and sufficiency enough are used as degree quantifiers for properties expressed in predicative NPs. Husband doesn't usually denote a gradable property, but in this construction we understand the quantification to apply to the degree to which Ed has the properties that are taken to characterise a good husband. Syntactically, much is a determiner-head taking a PP complement in which of is followed by an NP with the form a+ nominal. Much here is strongly non-affirmative. (p. 415)

Finally, note that not much of a choice is recorded as colloquial by some dictionaries. CaGEL says it is more likely to be found in spoken English, conversational contexts, informal style, or the usage of younger speakers, whereas not much choice can be said to be more characteristic of written English, literary contexts, formal style, and the usage of older speakers. (p. 826)

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    Does "CaGEL" refer to "The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language"? I'm not familiar with even the most well-known of linguistic authorities. It looks like the book is often abbreviated to "CGEL" but this more commonly used acronym can ambiguously refer also to another work in the same domain: "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language". Is the "a" in "CaGEL" (along with the "o" in "CoGEL", presumably) meant to disambiguate between these two works?
    – James An
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 9:09
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    @JamesAn CaGEL is different from CGEL. But these abbreviations are not standardised yet. I have seen variations of them across different sites. Here on EL&U, CaGEL is the most common, I would think.
    – fev
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 9:13
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    At the risk of this becoming a 'thing', I would say that, unfortunately, most commonly CGEL is used for both, here on EL&U and also in the broader world. Though it's not definitive, compare the results of googling "CGEL" "Huddleston" site:english.stackexchange.com vs "CaGEL" "Huddleston" site:english.stackexchange.com (I don't mean simply the number of hits; scroll through the results a bit). In the broader world, Pullum himself uses CGEL; as for as everyone else, again try googling "CGEL" "Huddleston" vs. "CaGEL" "Huddleston". Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 13:19
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    'Choice' cannot be pluralised in 'not much of a choice' (to, say, 'not much of 7 choices') and would not be considered a count usage by those using the numeral-substitution test. Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 17:16

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