Etymology Usage

Is “a lot of” sort of a sin?

Q: During a recent appearance on WNYC, Pat used two phrases that caused my wife and me some consternation: “a lot of” and “sort of.” Shouldn’t that have been “many” and “similar to” or “almost” or “possibly”?

A: Yes, Pat does say “sort of” and “a lot of” on the air, but we see nothing wrong with this.

On the radio show, she and Leonard Lopate are conversing, and consequently their style is informal or colloquial.

We wouldn’t use these phrases in the most formal writing (say, an article for a scholarly journal), but we’d use them in casual or informal writing (like this, for example) and of course in speech.

When the two of us speak, we use “sort of” in the sense of “rather” or “somewhat.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this adverbial use of the phrase as meaning “in a way or manner; to some extent or degree, somewhat; in some way, somehow.”

By the way, this usage isn’t a modern interloper. It dates back to the late 1700s.

Oxford describes the phrase as “colloquial,” a label that it defines elsewhere as meaning “characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language.”

The OED also says the phrase “sort of” has passed into use “as a parenthetic qualifier expressing hesitation, diffidence, or the like, on the speaker’s part.”

The phrase “a lot of” dates back to the late 1500s, says the OED, which defines it this way:

“A number of persons or things of the same kind, or associated in some way; a quantity or collection (of things); a party, set, or ‘crew’ (of persons); also, a quantity (of anything). Now only colloq., except with reference to articles of commerce, goods, live stock, and the like. Often with some degree of depreciation, either implied, or expressed by an epithet.”

Both “sort of” and “a lot of” are standard in spoken English. They are NOT grammatically incorrect or substandard. However, they’re informal in style and, like any other phrase, they shouldn’t be used monotonously.

We’ve had several items on the blog about “sort of” and “a lot of,” including postings in August, September, and November of 2008.

Here it might be helpful to insert a note about formal versus informal English. Never confuse the informal (or colloquial) with the ungrammatical!

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, the word “colloquial” is not a pejorative label, and “was probably a poor choice of term for describing ordinary everyday speech.”

For that reason, most standard dictionaries and usage guides now use the word “informal” instead. And informal English is not substandard or grammatically incorrect.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), which now uses the label “informal” rather than “colloquial,” says:

“Speakers of standard varieties of the language use both formal discourse and informal or conversational discourse.”

The dictionary classifies both “sort of” and “a lot of” as “informal.”

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