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Red Pen Diaries: The Alot Must Be Stopped

Does anything signal "uneducated" more than the use of "alot?" My father, an attorney, has done more than a few criminal appeals. I've seen some of the letters he receives from his prisoner clients — they pretty much all include "alot."

As you surely know, "a lot" is a great quantity of something; "alot" is... a town in India.

It's not like "a while" and "awhile," which are understandably confused. A "while" is a noun meaning an increment of time, and since it's a noun, it's preceded by an article, in this case "a." "Awhile," on the other hand, is an adverb essentially meaning "for a while." That's a pretty fine distinction if you ask me.

Even "may be" and "maybe" are related in their uncertainty; and at least they both can boast a lexical legitimacy that "alot" cannot ("may be" is a verb preceded by its "auxiliary"; "maybe" generally serves as an adverb).

No one writes "alittle" or "afew" or for that matter "acat" or "adog," so why does "alot" persist?

Several Web wags think untrained writers render "a lot" as one word because they're conflating "a lot" and "allot." This sounds plausible until you consider that the dullard who writes "alot" is likely unaware of "allot." I write for a living and I don't remember the last time I used the word "allot." I don't even see it in the writing of others very often. Nor can I blame this particular abomination on the insidious incursions of text talk.

And though I may be alone in wondering why it persists (my research has unearthed very little speculation on the subject), I'm not alone in my objection to its persistence.

"First, you should know that the word alot is NOT a word in the English language. Don't use that word! Ever! It is simply incorrect," says Star, a contributor to the National English Club of China blog. (Never mind that Star deems "alot" "not a word," then insists you not use the word.)

Also consider this, from the (awkwardly named) Learn English Network: "Alot does not exist! There is no such word in the English language. If you write it this way, imagine me shouting at you 'NO SUCH WORD!'" No one enjoys shouting about stuff like this more than I do, but I fear such a corrective won't take in the "alot"-leaning community.

Allie, of the delightful blog Hyperbole and a Half, has gone so far as to develop a coping mechanism, a creature she calls "the alot." Allie is nonetheless too kind because, as you can see in the artist rendering, her alot is adorable. The REAL "alot" is not.

If you know why people continue to write "alot," please let me know in the comments below, ideally before it becomes an acceptable variation of "a lot," which at this rate it almost surely will. Maybe, just maybe, if we find out why they do it, we can find a way to make them stop.

—Julia Rubiner


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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday July 7th 2011, 2:01 AM
Comment by: Skye H.
I agree with you completely. I resisted the instinct to say "very much", and certainly more than a lot.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 4:08 AM
Comment by: Waldo G. (London United Kingdom)
Hi. I liked this article, and I've noticed the phenomemon, but I couldn't give it 5 stars because of the assumption in the opening sentence that the use of such a word 'signals uneducated'. I have an old schoolfriend who maintains a correspondence with me in carefully handwritten, and very amusing, letters. He uses 'alot' rather a lot. We both went to a decent grammar school. He graduated in History. His wife is a lexicographer. I imagine there are quite a lot of 'alotters' who are otherwise well-educated. After all, probably 90% of the population here (England) and there (the US) don't worry about these things at all. I shall now return to my allotment and cultivate my vegetables.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 7:43 AM
Comment by: Dormouse (TX)Top 10 Speller
Just one name as a signature, but two in the byline? To my "uneducated" eyes, thats alot!
Thursday July 7th 2011, 7:59 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Perhaps in a similar category would be the "word" ANYWAYS which as a child I assimilated from my well-educated parents. Or is it just a misspelling?
Thursday July 7th 2011, 8:39 AM
Comment by: Paige D.
"Does anything signal 'UNEDUCATED' more than the use of ALOT?"

Just want to share an experience that I just had. I pulled up this article to show as an example of a blog entry to one of my students. (I love this website and try to cultivate a love of language in my students.) You should have seen his face deflate when he read the first paragraph. It took me a while to figure it out, but I'm pretty sure the value placed on "sounding educated" and using language "correctly" had an effect on the self esteem of my student (who's from inner-city Atlanta).

Give me a freaking break. Language changes. It always has it always will and the commoner masses will shape and "corrupt" it until it's no longer recognizable by we "educated" ones.

I tell him--yeah, language is an organic thing... what's "wrong" today might just be "right" tomorrow. It's only a matter of how clearly you're communicating, and that depends often on the reader and the times.

To make holy the "rightness" of A LOT over ALOT is silly and narrow-minded at best and downright conceited at worst.

I'm not advocating that the rules of English be dismissed; I'm just reminding you, authors, that "sounding educated" isn't what's really important...(unless all you're doing is correcting the writing of Corporate America). In fact an insistence on valuing this can greatly damage the potential for people of different classes, races, communities to communicate. Words are bigger than big business.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 8:52 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
I've seen this conflation in the writing of many educated people - it is probably a bad habit which occurs early, and thus is hard to correct, or has never been brought to the notice of the person using it!!
Thursday July 7th 2011, 9:09 AM
Comment by: Katie C.
As someone who works in marketing, I've had a number of interns, associates and others tell me it doesn't matter or no one notices when you use "alot" or make grammatical errors. Unfortunately, people do notice, and they make judgments about you and the organization you represent based on those mistakes. In addition, these kinds of mistakes can also distract from the message--people become focused on the errors and ignore what you're trying to say. So, eliminating "alots" and other errors from your writing helps you communicate better.

The other one I see quite often is "orientated" instead of "oriented." For example, someone will say in their resume that they are "results-orientated."
Thursday July 7th 2011, 9:14 AM
Comment by: Susannah (Lewisville, TX)
I'm sorry, but I must agree with Paige D. I teach English as a Foreign Language and I find that my education as a whole human being involves learning to understand the rich, precious communication of friends from all walks of life and from many cultures. If they write alot instead of a lot, I forgive them. I know I make many mistakes when I speak in their language, and believe me, I am not uneducated. I hold a masters in human services. Note the "human" aspect. Language is a tool which we use to communicate clearly, and writing alot instead of a lot does nothing to cloud our understanding of their meaning.

My friend, eschew obfuscation!
Thursday July 7th 2011, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I like to see the generosity of spirit that allows for a difference in opinion.
I agree with Paige and am entirely sympathetic with her recognition of the value of all people in our attempts to communicate and understand another's message.
But I also deplore careless and sometimes inappropriate use of language to denigrate or manipulate those who may disagree with someone's point of view.
So, both "sides" of an issue are equally valid and worthy of inspection.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Does anything signal "uneducated" more than the use of "alot?"

Paige, I think you are confusing "being right (correct)" and "having value." The value of a human being does not change - even when we are wrong (as we all are at times in some way or another). But, in so many cases, there is a price to pay for being wrong.

We all know that language changes, and it changes in different ways in different places, especially over time. That is why there are so many versions of English around the world today. The point is that on any given day, whether at school or at work (business, big or not) there are standards--wherever we live. We are each better served when we become educated about those standards and become proficient at applying them.

Students eventually need jobs (in some kind of business) to provide the means to care for themselves. It would be better to help a student understand that his value as a human being does not depend on how "educated" he is than to imply that learning the standards doesn't matter. His readers today won't be his readers tomorrow (when he gets a job) and what is considered clear communication will change. How we present ourselves, including how we write, matters.

As far as the use of "alot" goes, I wonder if some of it falls under the category of regional or familial idiosyncrasies. There are educated people who nevertheless habitually use some words wrong. How many times have you heard some well-known person, who you would think should know better, say "nucular" instead of "nuclear?" For years, I corrected my husband every time he said “dwaddle” instead of “dawdle” and then I heard his mother say it and knew it was never going to change for him. I know those are both verbal examples, but it seems that kind of thing could apply to our writing, as well.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 12:29 PM
Comment by: Kathleen M. (Richmond, VA)
Thank you for this blog. I needed it. Alot.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 12:56 PM
Comment by: jaci C.
When I worked with a small group of engineers in the early 80s, one of them actually use the term "alotof" as one word. I couldn't stop laughing. When I explained the "a lot" was two words, but I had never before come across the ingenious use of "alotof," they got the lesson down pat. At least four engineers never again made the "alot" mistake.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 1:19 PM
Comment by: Curtiss (Galveston, TX)
I don't think you would use "alot" if you wrote in cursive. I think printing and typing is the source of this creature. At first I imagined just typing, easy to omit the space, but jail inmates seldom get to use a keyboard.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 1:29 PM
Comment by: Tom W.
Interesting article AND comments. I agree with Roger Dee and Mary Lee (and am pleased that sentence rhymes) both sides of this debate have merit.

But I think the use of "uneducated" in the title was genius. It definitely got my attention. I might not even read the article if not for that word.

BTW, I have an undergrad in electrical engineering and an MBA. But it was several years into my career before somebody told me alot was not a word. I remember being slightly embarrassed and saying something like, "Huh. Really? Who knew? Thanks."
Thursday July 7th 2011, 1:37 PM
Comment by: Anna O. (London United Kingdom)
"The other one I see quite often is "orientated" instead of "oriented." For example, someone will say in their resume that they are "results-orientated."


Katie, 'orientated' is common British English usage and is cited in the OED. That doesn't make it incorrect, it makes it yet one more piece of evidence that we have transatlantic differences.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 2:28 PM
Comment by: John S.
I wonder why "alot" has not gained acceptance? The term is relatively benign--not like the misuse of issue, which really gets my goat. Of course, I would not use alot in financial reports or anything like that, but on Facebook I might.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 2:51 PM
Comment by: Nick S. (Indianapolis, IN)
This blurb is well written and fun to read. I like it a lot.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 3:12 PM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
The way to spell it and say it should be one or the other in my opinion. For example, in the business community, I prefer to do business with those that are adept. If there is no such word as alot and a business associate is using the word alot, that kind of makes me think the business associate is lazy on other matters. If you call yourself a powerlifter and you squat, should train at in the manner you will be judged in competition. Students should be trained for what they can expect to see as they try to earn a living one day. Alot is one example of many to be sure where training does not need to be relaxed.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 3:29 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Interesting article, great comments.

I thought immediately of "irregardless" as another non-word that gets frequent use.

Mary Lee mentioned two irregularities of pronunciation. "Nucular" is especially irritating to me, since my undergrad degree is in physics. (I've heard that we owe that to Eisenhower, who habitually mispronounced it, and all those around him picked it up. I don't know if this is true, but it does seem to me that "nucular" is more common among Republicans than Democrats.

Here's a text-based one that I find annoying: "I would of been there" rather than "I would've been there." It's most annoying when authors use this as a device to signal that a character is backwoods or uneducated.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 3:43 PM
Comment by: Jennifer M. (Laguna Beach, CA)
In addition to "alot", I would like to submit The Oatmeal's 10 words that everyone should stop misspelling immediately. I personally like the way he/she describes "definitely".
For your enjoyment: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/misspelling

(And if you liked that, you'll love the one on apostrophes!)
Thursday July 7th 2011, 4:50 PM
Comment by: Mr. Natural (Sabaneta/Medellin Colombia)
Seems like a lot to do about no thing.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 5:22 PM
Comment by: John M. (Cottonwood Heights, UT)
Seems to me I've been seeing another assimilated article a lot lately, ahold. It would appear that some authors seem to be letting their flabby tongues, or perhaps just their overwaxed esrs, influence their typing fingers.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 5:28 PM
Comment by: agoddessinlove (I wander far and wide, CA)
I had an incredibly brilliant and inspiring English and Creative Writing teacher for my middle school years. She taught us everything she knew without resorting to text books or vocabulary tests. Her one and only grammar lesson from the black board was to write in giant letters:

ALOT IS NOT, I REPEAT, NOT A WORD!!!

Even though during an absent minded text writing rush I can look back and find their, there and they're all mixed up, the word alot cannot and will not flow from my fingers.
Friday July 8th 2011, 1:04 AM
Comment by: Russell M. B. (Toronto Canada)
I'm not sure why "alot" has shown up in the present era. (Recently retired, I taught university English for 40 years. I don't recall seeing it, ever, in the first half of my career.)

But after it began to appear I started seeing a number of other fused forms in undergraduate writing: I particularly recall "atleast", "aswell", and "moreso".
Saturday July 9th 2011, 4:13 AM
Comment by: Evekitas
The reason people continue to use alot is simple and should be obvious, although it won't solve your problem. Words used together often enough become combined, as any linguist will tell you ("backseat," "livingroom," "awhile," etc).

Alot, then, is no ordinary error: it's an error on its way to becoming correct. Only sticks-in-the-mud like ourselves have succeeded in holding back the tide this long...but not much longer.
Saturday July 9th 2011, 10:26 AM
Comment by: Russell M. B. (Toronto Canada)
To John M.: "ahold" is a very old form, omitted in some dictionaries but included in many (often marked as dialect). I think of it as rural and western but it may be more widespread than that. I have observed it in speakers from Texas (where I grew up) and also (quite recently) in Alberta. I didn't think I used it, but I recently found myself saying "I can't get ahold of [someone]" so it appears to be particularly associated with (that not limited to) that phrase.
Sunday July 10th 2011, 12:05 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Considering Twitter's 144 character limit, I expect alot will move from the uneducated column to the computer savvy column and the use of "a lot" will signal the lack of education.

Mike

To catwalker,

My memory is fuzzy but I thought there was a recent blog entry pointing out that irregardless is a word.
Monday July 11th 2011, 4:50 AM
Comment by: Jennifer F. (Brunswick Australia)
Thank you! All too often I get pulled up by clients who wish to argue/correct my use of "a lot" in copy. In fact, it happens a lot.
Tuesday July 12th 2011, 10:41 AM
Comment by: Brak87 (Dallas, TX)
I would have enjoyed this article if it actually talked about how this "problem" pertains to advertising and marketing. I'm sure it does, but there wasn't a single mention of an ad or client example.

With all due respect, this article is just one big soapbox-rant (with a very condescending tone).

I subscribe to this email because I work in advertising and want to read about it, not because I want to hear about someone's personal pet peeve. Tell me how it relates to the field.
Tuesday July 12th 2011, 2:20 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Isn't the tone of Brak87's comment a bit peevish?
Not to be judgmental, but to me, the article relates to the accepted standards of the English language and many of it's fine points.
I'm positive most of the readership will find positive value in just about every article presented in this forum and not become disgruntled over the omission of their own particular schtick!
Tuesday July 12th 2011, 4:48 PM
Comment by: Brak87 (Dallas, TX)
Roger,

You are right when you say, "the article relates to the accepted standards of the English language and many of it's fine points."

However, this article comes from the Visual Thesaurus department, CANDLEPOWER: AD AND MARKETING CREATIVES, and is therefore out of place. This article belongs in Lesson Plans, Teachers at Work or Word Routes, not Candlepower.

I am a copywriter and I subscribe to Candlepower so I can read about the latest trends in advertising, but the word advertising is not mentioned once in this article. These articles are not free, so yes, I am disgruntled.

(Also, "it's" does not have a comma when it is used in a possessive way, but I’m sure you already knew that, and you just made a mistake.)
Tuesday July 12th 2011, 6:28 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the reply.
I intuit you are a man of good faith.
Perhaps I live in a different orbit (Mars, maybe?)
But I don' t understand your aggravation. Can anyone help me to understand this dilemma?
And, the possessive pronoun____I know that!
Thursday July 14th 2011, 11:48 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
A Wonderful analogy.
I laughed, laughed and laughed!
My fellow relatives from my native country(where English is not the first language)write their email responses using these condense words.
Once I asked them from where they learned it. They said they don't have time to write the full word/words.
At first I got furious. Ms.Julia and Mr. Simon's analogy in this column of "single fingered" identity is the most appropriate reflection for them and I'm going to send them the cartoon picture right now.
The jokes in this column are always so funny that even "alot' will smile.
FB

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