When I'm speaking English, I think I use not a lot and not much interchangeably. I've thought that maybe grammatically there is a difference between the phrases.

Are there cases where I should use not a lot instead of not much, or can I use them interchangeably?

I don't like Japanese food very much.

I don't like Japanese food a lot.


I don't watch TV very much.

I don't watch TV a lot.


I don't know much about Western history.

I don't know a lot about Western history.


What great examples!

As for the last set of sentences: I'd call them just about interchangeable, except that "a lot" would be regarded as less formal. (NOAD tags "a lot" as "informal," e.g.) If I was proofreading my own writing, I'd probably change "I don't know a lot about" to "I don't know much about." Either would be fine in conversation, though.

I don't know much about Western history. {okay}
I don't know a lot about Western history. {okay in conversation, perhaps a bit informal for writing}

As for the middle set: I'd rephrase the latter sentence to read, "I don't watch a lot of TV." The first one could also be rephrased ("I don't watch very much TV"), but those two sentences have slightly different meanings: "I don't watch TV very much" would probably be interpreted as "I don't watch TV very often"; while "I don't watch very much TV" sounds more like "I don't watch many TV programs". The difference is very subtle, but I think it's existent. If I watched a half hour of TV nightly, but always the same program, I'd be inclined to say, "I don't watch a lot of TV," but not, "I don't watch TV very much." (After all, I watch nightly!)

I don't watch TV very much. {you don't watch TV very often}
I don't watch a lot of TV. {you don't watch too many TV programs}
I don't watch TV a lot. {not wrong per se, but I'd recommed one of the others}

As for the first set, that latter sentence sounds off to me. Interestingly enough, I have no problem with its inverse: "I like Japanese food a lot." However, when speaking in the negative, "I don't like Japanese food very much" sounds much more polished than "I don't like .. a lot."

I don't like Japanese food very much.
I don't like Japanese food a lot. {use the first one, not this one}

I like Japanese food very much.
I like Japanese food a lot. {in the positive, you can use either one}

I'm marveling how, even though the three pairs of examples all have the same sentence structure, my comments are different for all three. I guess this is a trickier problem than one might first expect.

  • 1
    +1 I think your first substantive paragraph nails it: 1. in formal registers, much, whether positive or negative, is preferred; 2. in less formal registers, positive lot is preferred and negative much and lot are about on a par. Where and how the terms fall in the sentence is a matter of focus. Jul 17 '13 at 11:59
  • @J.R. Here I wanted to know the differences dependeing on the context, if any, even though they are subtle. Your answer solved all my questions. Thank you for the detailed explanation. Jul 18 '13 at 0:23
  • Sorry, let me ask one more question here. How about a positive sentence in the first example. "I know much about" , and "I know a lot about". Do they both work? Jul 18 '13 at 1:35
  • @tennisgirl: "I know a lot about..." sounds more natural to me. It's not that "much" couldn't work, but "a lot" flows better. Hard to say why.
    – J.R.
    Jul 18 '13 at 2:07
  • @J.R. Thnak you very much. It's clear. Jul 18 '13 at 5:18

There's not a lot of difference. I mean, there's not very much difference. :-)

I think all of your examples are pretty much equivalent.

I agree with JR that "a lot" is less formal.

I'd quibble with JR on the distinctions he makes in the TV and Japanese food examples. I think in both cases, "a lot" and "very much" are acceptable in informal context and mean the same thing.

  • I'll grant you that the nuances I've described are very subtle and not glaring. If I was proofreading a scripted speech, I'd strive to use the more "accurate" wording, based on what the speaker would be trying to convey. In everyday conversation, there is a negligible difference.
    – J.R.
    Jul 17 '13 at 16:50
  • @Jay. Thank you very much for your answer. It's very helpful, also. Jul 18 '13 at 0:24

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