Student Stumper 7: Lots of Quantifiers

QUESTION:

I know LOTS and A LOT OF mean many. I can say I have lots of friends or I have a lot of friends. Is there any difference between them? What about PLENTY OF? Is it the same?

ANSWER:

It can be confusing to have so many similar expressions. I told the student about the difference in register, explaining that LOTS and A LOT OF are more informal than MANY. After some reflection, I began to consider if LOTS is the most informal of the three. It seems that A LOT OF has more widespread use than LOTS, and for that reason A LOT OF doesn’t seem limited to informal spoken English. Would you agree?

Since offering my initial explanation, I’ve also wondered about the nuances of each expression. Does anyone else sense that LOTS is slightly more carefree in its estimation of amount or number to the point of exaggeration? Example:            

Do you know what you’re doing?

 – Sure! I’ve done this lots of times!

Yeah, right!

As for PLENTY, I think it has the versatility of A LOT. It’s common in everyday English, but it’s permissible to use it in more formal situations, especially when the speaker wants to imply there’s more than enough of something. Examples: We got plenty of time, so let’s not rush, okay? / We have plenty of time before the deadline, so I suggest we be as thorough as possible. The second is a more formal statement, but both uses of PLENTY are acceptable, aren’t they?

I also told the student who originally stumped me with this question that having a choice among similar words and phrases can be confusing, but at the same time it allows creativity in our expression. As students reach higher levels of proficiency, we can show them that knowing synonymous expressions furthers their ability to communicate. We can teach them how variety in both word choice and grammar can make their speech more accurate and more colorful.

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