(1) I can think of little that interests me less than what critics say about me or my work.
(The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith)

When I came across the sentence, I got this question. Can ‘not many’ be the complement for ‘of’: (2) I can think of not many that interests me less than what critics say about me or my work? I'm not asking whether (2) is equivalent to (1) or not, but asking if the structure of (2) can be possible.

  • your structure number 2 sounds incorrect to me
    – Leo
    Oct 25 '14 at 12:03
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    Your #2 (I can think of not many that interest me) is grammatically fine, but in practice native speakers would almost always rearrange it to I cannot think of many that interest me, which is probably why your version sounds either ill-formed or literary/poetic. Oct 25 '14 at 12:37
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    "I can think of not any that interests me" is not acceptable. As the antecedent of 'that' is 'interests', the verb needs to be 'interest'. Even with that correction, "I can think of not many that interests me less than what critics say about me or my work" does not work. 'Many' needs to be 'many things' or 'much'.
    – tunny
    Oct 25 '14 at 12:58
  • @FumbleFingers I think that #2 is propositionally fine, but not grammatically: the 'rearrangement' is obligatory. Oct 25 '14 at 14:24
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    @StoneyB: I can't see how you'd define a grammatical principle allowing "Yet he can name not one of our Allies which is reducing its expenditure in real terms, apart from our own country" but not OP's #2. Maybe it depends on exactly how you distinguish idiomatically unremarkable from grammatical. Or maybe you don't accept my cited usage as "valid". Oct 25 '14 at 16:35

(1) okI can think of little that interests me less than what critics say about me or my work.
(2) I can think of not many that interests me less than what critics say about me or my work.

Sentence (2) fails on two counts:

  • unlike little, which designates a non-count amount, a singular, many designates a count quantity, a plural. Consequently many requires a plural verb:

    ... not many that interest me ...

    The (singular) negative corresponding to (singular) little would be not much.

    ... not much that interests me ...

  • I can think of not much ... is not English idiom; we insist on moving the negator onto the verb in the head clause:

    I can think of not much ...
    okI can’t think of much ...

    This is called negative raising (NR) and is particularly associated with a set of expressions called negative raising predicates (NRPs) which include believe, want, seem, suppose, likely, ought to in addition to think.

    But further analysis of NR—under what circumstances it must or may be employed, and what ambiguities it introduces—is very complicated and controversial: far beyond my ability to understand, much less explain.

signifies that the following utterance is ungrammatical

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    It seems to me one of the implications of "very complicated and controversial" there is that we're not just talking about how to describe precisely which usages natives speakers do or don't accept as "valid". There's almost certainly variation among competent native speakers on such matters. Personally, I find that I'm more tolerant of not many than I am of not any in many contexts. And I'm far more tolerant of not one in most contexts. Oct 25 '14 at 17:31
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    @FumbleFingers There are a lot of pragmatic and semantic factors involved - Google "negative raising" and browse in the results for an hour or so and your head will swim. And in any such case there are grey areas. But just for instance: your example above suggests to me that the MP started out in one direction, threw in 'not many' as a hedge -- and then went back and corrected himself when he realized how odd it sounded. Oct 25 '14 at 17:47
  • Well, at the end of the day linguists (and sensible grammarians) can only identify/articulate rules based on what native speakers actually generate and/or accept (though you might need to be careful if many people claim some usage is acceptable, but in fact none of them ever generate it). And I'm certainly not claiming all my cited usages aren't at least somewhat "odd, unusual". Considering the US/UK divide (and, I believe, your theatrical background which I lack), I'm surprised how often we agree on very fine distinctions. But there will always be differences between individuals. Oct 25 '14 at 18:14
  • @FumbleFingers Absolutely. And I'd add that in unscripted speech what people actually generate is not an entirely trustworthy guide to what they intend to generate! As for my background, that mostly counteracts the US/UK divide: my academic field was British drama, and my English-language heroes were (after Shakespeare) Shaw, Arden, Pinter, Bond - not a Yank in the lot. Oct 25 '14 at 19:21

I can think of not many things that interest me less than what critics have to say about me or my work.

That would work. Simpler would be:

Few things interest me less...

Many can act as a pronoun when there is an immediate antecedent to which it refers

Did you see any people? 
--I saw many.

or when it anticipates a noun in a subsequent clause

I cannot think of many who were faster runners than my uncle Joe.

or when the subject is understood:

Not many have a Rolls Royce, a mansion, and a private jet.

In your example, the structure is of the anticipatory variety, but the noun phrase that is being anticipated is "what critics have to say". That noun-phrase is rather indefinite as nouns go. That's why you need things.

  • I agree with most of this, but not your first sentence: this demands negative raising, "I cannot think of many things...". Oct 25 '14 at 14:22
  • I think "demands" is overstating it, but I do agree that more native speakers would say "I cannot think of a reason why he would have dyed his teeth blue" than would say "I can think of no reason why he dyed his teeth blue." I can think of few things that interest me less that what critics say about me or my work. Oct 25 '14 at 16:22
  • It is specifically not many which demands NR; I think nobody would say "I can think of not many reasons why ...". Why they wouldn't say that is another question, hotly debated. Oct 25 '14 at 17:17
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    I've heard it both ways, though with the negative raising by far the more common. Here are a few examples, admittedly not transcripts of everyday speech, and that may play into it: tinyurl.com/ncnvkuf ; tinyurl.com/mqovg3x ; theage.com.au/federal-politics/… Oct 25 '14 at 19:24

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