5

I constantly have trouble with spelling the word-phrases ‘at least’ and ‘a lot’ .. they both should be a single word in my mind, which isn’t correct.

They both seem to just be a single unit of meaning.

It’s an English idiom thing that I just continually stumble over. Anyone able to correct that in my head once and for all – much appreciated!

From the comments, I understand that I may have oversimplified in saying that 'a lot' and 'at least' were pairs of words. That being the case, I'd update my question as to why there is a space in that word, and if they are part of a larger set of words/lexemes that are similarly constructed.

Also, this is my first question, so if anyone has feedback on the tags I used, that would also be welcome. I wondered about applying the tag ‘grammatical-number’ for instance, but that didn’t seem as correct as the five I chose.. not sure though.

I understand I checked off an answer too quickly - I wish there were a way to accept multiple answers! Next time I'll wait longer though.

10
  • 1
    Linguist David Crystal introduced the term 'lexeme' for 'a string of 1 or more orthographic words carrying a base unit of meaning'. So go, goes, going, gone, went constitute 1 lexeme, and particle board, particle-board, particleboard another one. More complicated examples are ship of the desert when used as a synonym for camel, and come to where this is the multi-word verb meaning 'regain consciousness'. Compound prepositions such as on top of (compare the old-fashioned near-synonym 'atop' and German 'auf') also qualify. Note that multi-word lexemes exist, ... Oct 27 at 14:04
  • 2
    and that English is idiosyncratic (The box is on top of the table, but The box is under/beneath the table). 'On top of' is unremarkable, and as correct grammatically (and as idiomatic) as 'on' or 'underneath'. Oct 27 at 14:04
  • I suspect the reason is that there are two forms: singular "lot", which is determined by "a", and plural "lots", which does not take a determiner.
    – BillJ
    Oct 27 at 14:29
  • @EdwinAshworth Thank you for introducing me to 'lexeme', I hadn't heard of that yet! All your examples are fascinating and helpful. Much appreciated.
    – 4dcndn
    Oct 27 at 15:12
  • 1
    I have the same problem. However, a lot is definitely two words, because the noun lot there can take a small number of modifiers: a whole lot bigger / not an awful lot bigger / didn’t make a huge lot of difference. Always best to wait a day or two before selecting an answer!] Oct 27 at 22:45
5

You're certainly not the first to feel an urge to merge "a lot" into "alot." Maybe the most revealing question would be, why does it feel like "it should be a single word"?

It's easy enough to explain why these examples are two words. Take "at least": they're just two words, just doing their things. We might have said "at the least," or any other wordier construction using "at": "at the very latest," "at a hazard," and not feel compelled to merge these phrases into a single word. Similarly, "a lot" is, well, a lot, a noun in its own right, which came from the idea of a portion or share (and "a lot" has come to imply a large portion). We might use "a" with any other noun: "a multitude," "a plethora," etc., and not go around creating such mutant monsters as "abunch."

So far so good, but wait; many pairs of small words have successfully gotten hitched. "Some thing," "any thing," and maybe the most parallel example, "a while"—why do these get to be something, anything, and awhile, but the poor old alot gets mocked and persecuted? I don't have any better answer to that than... languages move in mysterious ways. Accepted usage is what we use and what we accept. Maybe the alot (and maybe even the atleast and atmost?) will have their day... someday.

13
  • Note, for some of these mashups, the two-word and one-word versions get different uses, like "a while" vs "awhile" or "every day" vs "everyday". For others, though, like "something," the merged form has so taken over the meaning of the two-word phrase that the two-word is squeezed into a corner, existing only for usages that emphasize the two words ("It's some... some thing!!"). Oct 27 at 14:13
  • 1
    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. And yet, "another" is one word, despite passing this same test ("a whole other thing")
    – No Name
    Oct 28 at 0:03
  • 1
    @NoName (And then there's the colloquial "a whole 'nuther thing," which gets the best of both words...) Oct 28 at 0:09
  • 1
    @NoName It doesn't matter what we write, really. That's just convention. It can change overnight. There's no wrong or right of it. :) Oct 28 at 0:24
  • 1
    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. So long as we agree!
    – No Name
    Oct 28 at 0:26
2

They're not two words. They're spelled with a space, but that's just spelling, not language. Many languages don't space between words, or -- what amounts to the same thing -- don't consider "words" the same as English does.

Spaces and spelling are irrelevant to actual language. Would an illiterate English speaker think of at least or a lot as two words?

4
  • I think a non-literate intelligent speaker would indeed regard a lot as two words because there are an, albeit very limited, number of modifiers that can be used with lot. For example: whole, huge, awful, very. Oct 27 at 22:36
  • I think this is a poor answer. They may represent a single concept, but they do it using two words -- words are the things we separate with spaces when writing.
    – Barmar
    Nov 1 at 18:15
  • @Barmar go ahead, define "word", do it, in under 512 characters, I dare you
    – vectory
    Nov 4 at 16:51
  • From Lexico: "A single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed." What you're describing I would call a "term".
    – Barmar
    Nov 4 at 17:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.