“As many people as not”

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A reader from India, apparently not satisfied with the responses from WordReference and StackExchange, writes to express his problem with the phrase “They kill as many people as not”, found in an article by Anne Lamott (“Anne Lamott shares all that she knows: ‘Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared’“, Salon 4/10/2015).

“As many people as __” is routine, so presumably the problem is “as not”.

And in fact “as not” is also routine, though it’s an example of a somewhat restricted construction — sometimes not can be the elliptical remnant of a negative verb phrase or a whole negative clause:

This kills as many people as it does not kill. = This kills as many people as not.
As many people agreed as did not agree. = As many people agreed as not.

This kind of ellipsis doesn’t work in all contexts:

*We registered the people who agreed and also the people who not.

Particular instances have become common collocations, or even idioms — thus as often as not can be used as a pre-predicate adverb, as in this passage from M.R. James, “The Austin Canons in England in the Twelfth Century“, Journal of Theological Studies 1904:

Nor most we be led away by the term Minster, and imagine that there were numerous small isolated monasteries in the kingdom. In the time of Beda we know that there were settlements of a vague kind of monasticism, but the head of these houses was as often as not married and the churches had been handed down from Either to son, and they had by this time fallen into the hands of those who were called secular clergy and were as often as not married men. The term Minster, as we have it in Ilminster, Charminster, Axminster, Banwell Minster, Cheddar Minster, seems to denote a church to which a resident priest was attached. The several Whitchurches in the south-west of England are all called Album Mooasterium and as often as not Whytminster.

In “A Vocabulary of Thinking” Gertrude Stein turned this into a sort of verbal finger spinner: “As often as not as often as not they as often as not were to be going away.”

But anyhow, “as many people as not” is Out There:

[link] Hype cuts both ways and may turn off as many people as not.

[link] Three times as many people as not favour mixed-use, smart growth communities, but most still want to live in a stand-alone house.

[link] These methods work for just as many people as not.

[link] It seems that as many people as not who go there do the same – I actually got the idea from reading the Bahamas forums here on Tripadvisor.

And “as many X as not” is of course more common:

[link] Either way, the verdict already seems clear that as many Americans as not are defaulting to the mediocre in principle, not merely in practice.

[link] So almost as many voters as not were seasoned enough in Kentucky politics to know that the mention of an efficient and effective Frankfort is no more than an oxymoron.

[link] Nudist beaches and camps (Freie Koerper Kultur or ‘free body culture’) are common all over the county, and in most public swimming places, as many women as not will be topless.

So I hope that the curious person from India will be satisfied with this explanation. But If Not, Then Oh Well.



13 Comments »

  1. Craig S said,

    June 18, 2017 @ 9:54 am

    In essence, it’s just a more flowery and less generic way of saying “a lot of [X]”.

    Taken literally, it would seem to imply “this statement is true for half of all people that it applies to”, because “as many as not” would seem to imply a literal or virtual tie between the number of people for whom the statement is true and the number of people for whom it isn’t — but while a couple of the examples above are directly tied to polling or voting results, none of the others strike me as ones where the exact numbers involved would be remotely quantifiable. Most are using it in a more figurative sense: out of a vast and not easily counted number of [X], this statement is true for a lot of [X] and not true for a lot of other [X].

    Another construction used in a similar way is “as often as not”. It’s not literally possible to quantify whether the thing literally happens exactly fifty per cent of the time, but rather it’s just a wordier way of expressing that it happens often. You could technically take “as” and “as not” out of the sentence without actually changing its meaning at all, although you might be changing its prosody and rhythm.

  2. Isaac D. said,

    June 18, 2017 @ 10:35 am

    @Craig Another possible interpretation which avoids the problem you describe is that when we say “as many X as not” (as when we say “as iften as not”) we mean that there are at least as many X where the statement is true as there are X where the statement is false. The idiom seems especially appropriate when intuition or conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise.

  3. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 18, 2017 @ 4:09 pm

    In the James extract, should ‘from Either to son’ be ‘from father to son’?

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 18, 2017 @ 6:31 pm

    @Andrew (not the same one): I’m pretty sure that “Mooasterium” is also an OCR error or some such.

    I might have some slight discomfort with the examples where “as many X as not” isn’t the subject of the verb. I don’t know why.

  5. tangent said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 1:10 am

    (Does Geoff truly interpret “doubles your chances of death” as “200% chance of eventually kicking it”? Of course the headline writers meant “doubles the death rate.” I wouldn’t bet much on the science, retrospective epidemiological studies are a state of sin, but I can’t criticize the headline writer. What would you have written to be Geoff-proof?)

  6. Michael said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 10:47 am

    The reader should take heart. In the future, due to the simple weight of numbers, Indian speakers of English will surely be the determining factor as to what is and is not standard. Please do the necessary.

  7. Guy said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 11:26 am

    I think the most frequent context I hear this is “more often than not”. I remember the first time I heard this expression I interpreted it as “it happens more often than not at all.” Which I found mystifying in context.

  8. BZ said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 2:55 pm

    None of these “as not” examples seem right to me. More often than not is completely natural, though.

  9. Chris C. said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 4:07 pm

    It probably says as much as not about my own biases that the expression catching my eye as problematic in the Anne Lamott article was, “But radical self-care is quantum, and radiates out into the atmosphere, like a little fresh air.”

    Like so many in the humanities, she doesn’t appear to know what “quantum” means.

  10. empty said,

    June 19, 2017 @ 6:06 pm

    I believe she means that it is more useful to view radical self-care as a field than to view it as a particle.

  11. rpsms said,

    June 20, 2017 @ 10:56 am

    @tangent: the problem is, the study cites HR = Hazard Ratio. So ‘Of course the headline writers meant “doubles the death rate.’ ” is also wrong.

  12. Kate Gladstone said,

    June 21, 2017 @ 8:25 pm

    Your 1904 M. R. James quote suffers from bad OCR.
    “Either” should be “father” — and “Mooasterium” should be “Monasterium” …

  13. Truffula said,

    June 22, 2017 @ 12:21 pm

    Your wordreference link should be: https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/as-many-people-as-not.3335421/

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