Is it okay to use "a lot of" with countable nouns or is it still better to use "many" instead?
For example, how much is "He had many wives" better than "He had a lot of wives"?
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Yes, it's fine to substitute "a lot of" for "many" with countable objects:
There are many ships out on the ocean today.
There are a lot of ships out on the ocean today.
As FumbleFingers points out in his comment, "many" can feel formal or dated, and "a lot of" is more informal. It may be appropriate to use "many" with subjects that are already formal or dated. Polygamy, for example, is a dated practice in much of the world, so "he had many wives" is appropriate, especially when talking about historical or biblical figures:
King Solomon had many wives, supposedly more than 700.