Saturday, 19 November 2011

Much to learn

A spot of synchronicity. Recently, a non-native speaker asked me about the usage of the English word "much". I had to think about this one, because it's in the territory where native speakers learn in early language acquisition; to non-native learners, it proves to have quite a complicated rule-set for such a simple word.

On first analysis, it seems that in idiomatic standard English, these are the main rules for when "much" is usable as a quantifier:
  • with an intensifier:
    I liked the film very much. - standard
    I liked the film much. - not standard
  • in questions:
    "Have you much money on you?" - standard
    I have much money on me. - not standard
  • in negative statements:
    There wasn't much food at the party. - standard
    There was much food at the party. - non-standard
  • with non-countable nouns (subject to the previous constraints):
    There wasn't much food at the party. - standard for non-countable
    There weren't many plates at the party. - standard for countable

I use "standard" vs. "non-standard" rather than grammatical vs. ungrammatical because this is often a matter of register rather than correctness; on further analysis, there are exceptions. In formal English, "much" is usable in some kinds of positive statements, subject to position.
  • We much enjoyed our visit.
    but not We enjoyed our visit much.
  • Your condolences were much appreciated.
    but not Your condolences were appreciated much.
  • There is much to be said about the adoption process in the UK (Hansard)
  • There is much that is good ... (Hansard)
  • We have much to do to prepare for that possible eventuality. (Hansard)

This brings me to the Currys PC World advert embedded above, an extended spoof of the scene when Darth Vader arrives to inspect progress on the Death Star II. The ad ends with Vader saying "You have learned much, young one", a quote from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

It's immediately recognisable as an odd phrase, but one that's proving a puzzle because it goes against a trend. If you look at Google Books Ngram Viewer, you find that similar forms using "much" after a verb are generally archaic ones on the decline: "have seen much", "have heard much", "have said much", "have travelled much", and so on. Yet "have learned much" is a construct that's virtually non-existent in 1800, but has more or less continually increased in print use since then; it appears, then, to be a formalism that has developed in modern times rather than a relic of an archaic one.

Within the Star Wars mythos, why Vader should say this is open to speculation, since it's completely out of his normal range of diction.  During his childhood and youth in the films he speaks standard American, representing some regional flavour of Galactic Basic Standard. His change of accent and timbre is explicable by the use of a voice synthesizer - in the mythos, Vader suffered lung damage - but his actual speech pattern remains standard, and not overly formal (for instance, he uses contractions - see the Star Wars wiki). But the isolated weirdness of "You have learned much" represents a formalism beyond even that of other upper-echelon characters. Perhaps it's an acquired idiolect over-compensating for his regional roots?

Stalin springs to mind as an example of a despotic leader with a regional accent. It probably wouldn't have been as impressive as the voice of James Earl Jones, but it would have been authentic to leave Vader's voice as that of the Bristolian Dave Prowse.


  1. I've never thought consciously about this ... now that you've prompted me to do so, I realise that I use "much" after a verb myself (“I have traveled much in Concord”) in a way that must sound strange. Probably a childhood influence hangover, I suppose – I'll have to poke around in the linguistic attic and try to track down the source.

    On another tack ... Hong Kong born the proprietor of my local Chinese takeaway often says “Thank you much”. It sounds odd, but is used in a way which clearly shows it to be a logical construct designed to strike a balance between the routineness of "thank you" and the sometimes excessive emphasis of “thank you very much”.

  2. Just re-read my comment above and discovered the Yoda-like "Hong Kong born the proprietor"!


    Should have been "the Hong Kong proprietor" ... but a comma would also retieve it: "Hong Kong born, the proprietor of my..."

    And onward... this morning I found myself writing "Much has been written..." so changed it to "a lot" :-)

  3. But "much has been written" is perfectly normal in formal/academic style (see Google Scholar). It's the placing of "much" after the verb that seems uncommon.

  4. RG> But "much has been written"
    RG> is perfectly normal in
    RG> formal/academic style...

    Oh yes, I agree ... I didn't mean I was wrong; only that I was prompted to realise that I was being formal - pompously so in the context - and was thus given the chance to lighten up my style ... for which, thanks :-)