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From The Wizard of Oz Vocabulary Builder:

Together they frittered away many an afternoon, frolicking among haystacks in perpetual delight, far beneath the pellucid Kansas skies.

Why is it "many an afternoon"? I think "many+plural noun" is more appropriate.

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2 Answers 2

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Another way of saying many an afternoon is many afternoons.
You may be thinking of many as the collective

Many afternoons
Several afternoons

are equivalent in describing a collection of afternoons.

Each afternoon
Every afternoon
Many an afternoon

addresses the afternoons individually, though there are many afternoons.

Many an afternoon emphasises that each and every afternoon that they played in the haystack (and there were many of them) they had a lot of fun, but they may not have played in the haystack every afternoon. The rhythm in using many a(n) is also a bit more poetic.

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Interesting question, and it highlights a common misperception I've seen from many an English learner.

Essentially, this boils down to many afternoons vs. many an afternoon. So, let me ask a few questions about this:

  • Is there any difference in meaning? (No, the expressions are two ways to say the same thing.)

  • Is there any difference in appropriateness? (No, inappropriate would imply this wording should not have been used. Vulgar language is inappropriate in a children's book, for example. Rude remarks are inappropriate on the Stack Exchange. There is nothing inappropriate about many an afternoon.)

  • Is there a difference in commonality? (Yes, the plural from – many afternoons – is more commonly written, and more commonly spoken. However, more commonmore correct, and more commonmore appropriate, either. Moreover, usages change over time; many an afternoon wasn't so uncommon a century or so ago: behold the ngram.)

  • Is there a difference in register? (Ah, now we are getting somewhere. There is a difference in register! Let me get out of this parenthetical statement to explain.)

NOAD lists eight definitions of register as a noun, one of which is:

register (n.) linguistics a variety of a language or a level of usage, as determined by degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax, according to the communicative purpose, social context, and social status of the user.

So, the question is, why would a writer use a different register, instead of sticking with the more common form? This list is not exhaustive, but here are a few reasons why an author might want to do this:

  • to make the language sound more quaint (or old-fashioned, or formal, or stuffy, etc.)
  • to make the language sound more realistic, if a fictional character is speaking
  • to make the language sound more lilting or poetic
  • to make the language sound more proverbial or philosophical
  • to make the language sound more memorable

So, let's say I'm writing about safety while using a table saw. One way I can remind people to be safe in the wood shop would be:

PLEASE BE CAREFUL, DON'T BE DUMB
KEEP YOUR FINGERS, KEEP YOUR THUMB!

This might make a witty sign to hang in the shop, but it wouldn't be a good idea to put this in the table saw's owner's manual. Instead, it would be better to say something like:

WARNING: Using a table saw can be extremely dangerous. When the saw is running, keep your fingers and hands away from the blade at all times.

That language is appropriate for a user's manaual, but it probably won't hold the attention of those working in my woodshop. Thank goodness for register, which allows us to pick the best wording for our context!

Back to the excerpt from The Wizard of Oz. It makes sense that an author would choose the many an afternoon over many afternoons. For one thing, we are in a Land of Enchantment, where characters often employ lesser-used constructs. Equally as important, though, that language might not have even sounded that unusual when the play was written (in 1902).

I'm not sure if this many an afternoon was just the more common phrase, or if it's a deliberate use of a less common form. Part of that might depend in whether your book is quoting the play (which was written in 1902) or the movie script (which was released in 1939).

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    As a footnote, I think many an afternoon fits much better with the rest of the sentence, i.e.: frolicking among haystacks in perpetual delight, far beneath the pellucid Kansas skies. That's not common spoken English nowadays! (Don't expect to hear anyone say "far beneath the pellucid skies" when talking about the weather. Heck, I'd even be surprised to hear pellucid.)
    – J.R.
    Dec 6, 2015 at 10:56
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    "Many an English learner", nice :)
    – Peter
    Dec 6, 2015 at 11:06
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    +1 But it's not a quote from anything Baum was involved in; it's a retelling of WoO using 'bigger' words to build vocabulary. Dec 6, 2015 at 13:56
  • @StoneyB - Ah, thanks for telling me. (I presumed it had excerpts from the original text.)
    – J.R.
    Dec 6, 2015 at 17:48

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