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In A Plea for Captain John Brown, Thoreau writes:

How many a man who was lately contemplating suicide has now something to live for!

Phrases ... many countable-noun-in-plural ..., e.g. How many men who were lately contemplating suicide have now something to live for!, have been more frequent than ... many a countable-noun-in-singular ... in contemporary English. I would like to know:

1. What was more frequent in Early Modern English: "How many a man who was ..." or "How many men who were ..."?

and more general,

2. What type of construction was more frequent in Early Modern English: "... many a [singular-countable-noun] ..." or "... many [plural-countable-noun] ..."?

Let us assume that Early Modern English is English written before 1750.

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    Define your time periods. Thoreau was not early modern English.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 19, 2023 at 10:36
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    A straight rather than a rhetorical question ('How many men have ...') is possible only with the generic plural, and there are many such false positives. The question needs tightening, John. But then research will be complicated; individual examples in say Google n-grams will need examining, and adjusted totals of appropriate tokens compared. Apr 19, 2023 at 10:47
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    @Joachim I already modified the question in response to your worthy comment.
    – John Smith
    Apr 19, 2023 at 12:04
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    @EdwinAshworth I modified the question in response to the worthy comment of yours.
    – John Smith
    Apr 19, 2023 at 12:17
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    There's only one result (plural) between the two forms in EEBO. Arguably the question is now too "tight" — these are 5- and 6-grams in a period where there's not that many works. I would rather answer the original Q (though I only have data for 1470–1700).
    – Laurel
    Apr 19, 2023 at 14:18

1 Answer 1

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In both the specific and the general case, the plural form is more frequent in Early Modern English than the singular one.

Early English Books Online: "how many a man" versus "how many men"

I started with the more general term over "how many a man who was" and "how many a man who were" in response to Laurel's comment, which highlights that the latter phrases are too infrequent. I also report the five results in brief to show whether they were similar in syntax to your original question.

How many a man - 38 matches in 38 records (EEBO)

  • How many a Man has catch'd his Death, by sitting up with a sick Wife that he did not love! (Characters of the Virtues and Vices of the Age, 1695)
  • And how many a man, that God know is, knoweth not his owne childe, but labours to maintaine the frute of an others pleasures? (A Dialogue Full of Pithe and Pleasure, 1603)
  • How many a man or woman, who have faire comely bodies, good complexion, beautifully dressed up; but within, spirits most ugly and horrid ... (The Excellency of a Gracious Spirit Delivered, 1639)
  • There might one see how many a man that swum and helpe did crave / Was lost among the billowes strong, and water was their grave. (Britain, 1637)
  • But how many a man, that was full noble in his tyme, hath the wretches & nedy foryeting of writers put out of mind & don away (The works of ... Jeffrey Chaucer, 1687)

How many men - 1049 matches in 824 records (EEBO)

  • Then in some parts or other of Christendome, how ma∣ny men were there in al ages, who lo•…thed both the See of Rome, & the whole courses of it, as the Israelites did loath the Aegyp∣tian bondage? (The Reasons Which Doctor Hill Hath Wrought for the Upholding of Papistry ...: Unmasked, 1604)
  • Then in some parts of Christendome, how many men were there in all ages, who loathed both the See of Rome, and the whole courses of it, as the Israelites did loath the Aegyptians bondage? (A Treatist of the Perpetuall Visibilitie and Succession of the True Church in All Ages, 1624)
  • What a file, or Decury is, and of how many men it consisteth (The Tactiks of Aelian, 1616)
  • The torments of the other World are more grievous than those of the Earth, and of longer continuance; do not unbelievers tremble, when they consider how many men upon Earth we have destroyed in past Ages? (The Alcoran of Mahomet, 1688)
  • How many men have in a furious despair over-acted even their own projects, and have made it a malicious consolati∣on in their ruine, to get it attended with that of the publick? (The Causes of the Decay of Christian Piety, 1667)

How many men is much more common in the print corpus for Early English Books Online (1475-1700). Even with a caution to not believe that every match is relevant here, the difference in frequency is clear.

EEBO in English Corpora: "many noun-singular" versus "many noun-plural"

One of the limitations of the full EEBO database is that one cannot search by part-of-speech tags or other linguistic tags, since the input has not been coded. English Corpora, out of Brigham Young, has done that coding for a part of EEBO, making it possible to do a search based on a singular common noun (NN1) with a singular article (AT1) and plural common noun (NN2). (For more tagging details, see UCREL CLAWS7 Tagset.) After a bit of testing to make sure I understood the tags, I have run searches for many AT1 NN1 and many NN2.

Many AT1 NN1 - 9,163 tokens, 2,559 unique forms

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Many NN2 - 283,808 tokens, 6,855 unique forms

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You can see in the list of results that both forms are common but many [plural noun] is much more common. Many men has 10406 results to many a man's 1728. Some forms are much more common in plural: many things has 26,462 results, whereas many a thing only has 59. Other forms are relatively more frequent in the singular, up to a ratio of almost 1:1 (singular:plural) for sigh to 1:5 for soul and tear:

  • soul: 120 singular, 563 plural
  • tear: 103 singular, 553 plural
  • wound: 101 singular, 485 plural
  • sigh: 85 singular, 120 plural
  • knight: 53 singular, 156 plural

Why those words appear in the singular at a relatively high ratio is for another question to answer. I would guess that each of the words is more associated with a register likely to use the singular, like poetry or romance writing. Indeed, "many a" is common in texts like Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (book 1, 1596, from Luminarium), which intentionally adopted an older writing style.

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  • All of the five examples given for 'how many men' are false positives in the data. 'What a file, or Decury is, and of how many men it consisteth ... etc use the 'combien? / total number of' sense rather than that forced in say 'How many men who were lately contemplating suicide have now something to live for!' = 'What an encouraging number of men who were lately contemplating suicide now have something to live for!' This is the 'How nice!' sense of 'how'. I'm afraid most of the 1049 results will be of the wrong form. Apr 20, 2023 at 11:56
  • @EdwinAshworth How is that sense a false positive when OP didn't differentiate that sense from others and indeed seems to have agreed with those results? By my reckoning, a false positive would be: "While I don't know how, many men have come over the ridge." Apr 20, 2023 at 12:17
  • '@EdwinAshworth I modified the question in response to the worthy comment of yours. – John Smith. The looser interpretation does not compare likes and is unmeaningful. ' Apr 20, 2023 at 14:46

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