The Telegraph
Wednesday , July 4 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” Thus Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, and true it is. Except in my garden, that is, where a truer description would be, “Full many a slug is born to munch unseen, and waste my flowerbeds to a desert bare.”

But enough of gardening, back to grammar. What is this many before a flower, when many normally precedes some noun in the plural? This was no invention of Gray’s. Shakespeare 150 years earlier had Full many a glorious morning have I seen. That full has long since vanished. But, though it’s not common, many a survives even now; for example, many a man wouldn’t use it, but it exists.

Why? What’s the logic here? Doesn’t many a man simply mean many men? As often in English, there isn’t much logic. And yes, the two phrases have exactly the same meaning. There’s a grammatical difference, though: many men takes a plural verb, many a man a singular one.

In the past, you could also give many a man a plural verb. But no longer; as the latest edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage lays down, singular the verb must be. As in many a man doubts (not doubt) that a woman can drive. Shame upon him (not them), albeit I do know one male driver who at times has had that thought. And yet this many a... can be transmuted into a plural pronoun, as in many a sailor would sooner be ashore; they prefer land to sea.

We can also use many as a kind of noun, as in a good many or a great many. In the past, it could go with other adjectives, or indeed with no adjective at all: a many of his friends is an example from the 1650s. That usage is dead today, though the parallel a few of is alive and well. Oddly, in another imaginable parallel, it is few that suffers: no one has ever said few a man....

It was a reader who aroused my interest in the oddities of many. Which was preferable, he asked: he took one apple too many, or he took one too many apple? The first sentence, in fact, is technically the better; the second is colloquial, but perfectly usable as such — so, long, but only so long, as you transform my reader’s one too many apple into one too many apples, plural.

That’s very odd. You’d never say one sour apples, or indeed one many apples, yet one too many apples is correct. And that brings a further oddity. Suppose our one too many phrases, instead of being the object of some verb (he took), are the subject?

A football team, say, sneaks an extra man into play. The referee spots it. There is one player too many on this field, he says; or maybe one player too many is on this field. No problem so far: singular subject, one player, singular verb, is. But what if the ref, instead of one player too many, chooses to say one too many players? Which verb should he use? One too many players is on the field, or are?

You can argue for, or for players are. I’d go for are, treating one too many as a one-word adjective. But I wouldn’t bet my shirt on it. In real life, of course, the choice isn’t likely to arise: the ref will simply shout, get that man off. But it’s worth thinking about. There’s more to many than you’d expect. More to more, for that matter, but I’ll stop here.