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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.

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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.

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    +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. – StoneyB on hiatus 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. – tennis girl 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? – tennis girl 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. – tennis girl Jul 18 '13 at 5:18
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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. – tennis girl Jul 18 '13 at 0:24

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