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I've known the Russian word "много" for some time now, "намного" a little less long, and "гораздо" only very recently. I am now beginning to wonder if there are any subtle differences between them or any situations in which you would not use one or the other(s). As far as I can tell, of the three, "много" is, far and away, the most common, followed by "намного" and then "гораздо." Also, are any more formal/colloquial than the other(s)?

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"Много" means both 'many' and 'much' when they are used before nouns, in Russian there's no difference between these two words:

много друзей - 'many friends';

много денег - 'much money'.

On the other hand, "намного" and "гораздо" both mean 'much', but not in the meaning I mentioned above. They are used before adjectives in the comparative degree and mean enhancing the quality named by the adjective:

намного/гораздо сильнее - 'much stronger'

намного/гораздо быстрее - 'much faster'

намного/гораздо больше - 'much bigger', 'much more'.

There's practically no difference between "намного" and "гораздо", they are practically complete synonyms, but their difference from "много" is substantial. As for me, "гораздо" sounds a bit more colloquial than "намного" which is neutral, but that can be subjective. And you're right, "намного" is used more often than "гораздо".

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    And a quick example for "много" as synonym of "намного" and "гораздо": В этом году урожай картошки был много больше, чем в прошлом году. – ddbug Sep 16 '17 at 8:55
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    @ddbug - Well, yes, but I'd say that's dialectal/archaic use of много, you hardly ever see or hear it. – Yellow Sky Sep 16 '17 at 9:27
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    @YellowSky Great answers from both you and shabunc, but this one is the cake and his the icing, so the green checkmark goes to you. Incidentally, I've been studying comparatives, but through methods that offer lots of good practice but are a little sparse with explanation, so adding that bit about how "намного" and "гораздо" are added before the comparative degree really helped clear things up. Another second glance at sentences over on Reverso makes me think that "гораздо" must always be used before a comparative, but "намного" has a bit more freedom in the Russian language. Would you agree? – Lisa Beck Sep 17 '17 at 7:33
  • @LisaBeck - The only case I remember when намного is used without a following adj. in the comp. degree is намного продвинуться 'to have mush progress', like in Мы намного продвинулись в наших исследованиях. Still, I think it's an elliptical expression and the comp. adj. phrase дальше, чем раньше is left out. – Yellow Sky Sep 17 '17 at 14:13
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    @YellowSky "продвинуться" verb here implies two distances, the old distance and the new distance. And the new distance is much longer than old one was. So, the comparison happens, which pulls "намного" form. Using "много продвинулись" is quite problematic I think exactly for ambiguity between substantive and comparing senses of "много", What puzzles me, is why "гораздо продвинулись" is impossible here?... Turns out "гораздо" and "намного" are not semantic equivalents. – Arioch Sep 19 '17 at 9:45
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Just to add up something to the given answer. While "гораздо" and "намного" are indeed almost identical, sometime first word is more appropriate to use.

It's better not to use "намного" with words with the same root and antonyms.

So forms like гораздо многообразней or гораздо меньше are preferable compared to намного многообразней - this sounds tautological - or намного меньше - this can sound confusing.

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