Everything was lit with a dim, crimson light; the curtains at the windows were all closed, and the many lamps were draped with dark red scarves.

-- From Harry Potter

As I know, when 'many' precedes a noun word, we can not add the definite article 'the'. For example, I've seen "many people", but not "the many people". So, "the many lamps" here looks odd to me. How should we interpret it in this case? Or my understanding for this part of the grammar is plain wrong?

  • I have not heard of the rule from your first sentence. Do you have a source for it? Also I do not know why your counter example would be incorrect. – Raimund Krämer Nov 14 at 13:43
  • Everyone took their seats at the table, the chairs were all aligned, and the many people were eager to sit down. (works grammatically but replace 'people' with 'guests' or something less generic) – Jalapeno Nov 14 at 17:33
  • @dan I haven't read it myself, but it seems like HP is heavy on dialect, so it's not a good way to learn standard English. It's like trying to learn modern English by reading Pride and Prejudice. – Barmar Nov 14 at 20:11
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    As I know, when 'many' precedes a noun word, we can not add the definite article 'the'. -- Where did you get that idea? Here, "many" is an adjective, no different from "the red lamps". It's a synonym for "numerous", e.g., "the numerous lamps" means the the same thing (but is less poetic). – Jim Balter Nov 14 at 20:50
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    @Barmar - Or maybe that makes the Potter series an especially good source for learning English? (It apparently does a good job of debunking prior misconceptions with counterexamples.) – J.R. Nov 15 at 8:26
up vote 20 down vote accepted

Let's get rid of "many" and see what happens.

Everything was lit with a dim, crimson light; the curtains at the windows were all closed, and the lamps were draped with dark red scarves.

This wouldn't make any sense without "the", since it wouldn't specify which lamps were being talked about. With "the", it's clear: all the lamps in the room.

Now we want to add that there are a lot of lamps in the room. We are trying to say that the lamps have the property of being "many", so we use "many" as an adjective. If we still keep the word "the", we're still talking about all the lamps in the room.

Now we could drop the word "the", and the sentence would still make sense, however it would have a slightly different meaning.

Everything was lit with a dim, crimson light; the curtains at the windows were all closed, and many lamps were draped with dark red scarves.

This version says that there were a lot of lamps draped with scarves. But it's no longer clear that we're talking about all the lamps in the room. There could be some other lamps that weren't draped with dark red scarves, and in fact this wording suggests that there were (just as saying "many people like Harry Potter" suggests that some people don't).

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    Things are a little bit more tricky than this. If we say "lamps were draped", that's some lamps. "the lamps" is all lamps. "red lamps" is some red lamps. "the red lamps" is all red lamps. But ... "many lamps" is some lamps, and "the many lamps" is all lamps, so "many" is different from "red" in that it doesn't filter out anything, it only characterizes the number of lamps. Now consider "the pretty lamps" ... that could filter out ugly lamps, but more likely it characterizes all the lamps as pretty. This is ambiguous and it takes judgment and context to determine the exact meaning. – Jim Balter Nov 14 at 20:57

In fact, we can use the before many. When we say I have seen many people, we don't mean anyone in particular, but just state the fact that we have seen a lot of people (and it doesn't matter who exactly).

The many lamps means the writer is referring to some particular lamps she has mentioned before, or the context makes it clear (which I think is the case).

Here are a few more sentences with the + many:

In these 50 years, our peacekeepers have continued to provide peace to the many people suffering the ravages of war and violence.

Most important, recognition is due to the many people of Fiji who worked tirelessly towards the restoration of democracy.

Great importance must be attached to the need to protect the basic rights of the many people involved, whether by legal means or on humanitarian grounds.

In each of the sentences above we can use "those numerous people" instead of "the many people." Note that every time we say "the many people," it's clear who we are talking about.

It's exactly the same as "the five lamps" except that there weren't just five – there were many.

many can serve as a determiner or as an adjective (or as a pronoun but that's not relevant to your question).

Many people keep dogs as pets.

Of the many people who keep dogs as pets, quite a few also have cats.

Quite a few of the many people who keep dogs as pets also have cats.

  • Can other determiners like some, much and etc work with 'the' as well? Can they be adjective too? May we say : the much water, the some students? – dan Nov 14 at 21:25
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    @dan no, "the some" is not valid. “the many" or “the few", yes; “the some" or “the all", no. "the much" can be used in limited circumstances when it acts like a noun, as in "the much he knew about grammar still wasn't enough to make sense of the sentence". – Jim Balter Nov 14 at 21:39
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    @Tᴚoɯɐuo In your first example is there any way you could add 'the' before 'many'? – mcalex Nov 15 at 5:43
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    @dan: You can say "The little water we had would run out in a week." – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 15 at 12:01
  • @mcalex: Assuming you had already mentioned those people, yes, you could, although it could sound a little "forced". There were many people living on the street in cardboard boxes. They had no running water. If you substitute the many people for they it would be a departure from the normal and the usual, which doesn't make it ungrammatical but causes it to stand out. It wouldn't sound conversational but literary and to some ears it might seem like a non-native was speaking. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 15 at 12:12

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