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I have been doing some reading lately, and became aware of the two phrases 'много народа' and 'много народу'. According to Google Ngrams, both are current (although 'много народу' is 2x more frequent).

I guess that this has come about since 'народ' has both a standard and partitive genitive, so both options are grammatically correct. But is there any significant semantic distinction? Or is it just a matter of personal preference?

[Another question at this site dealt with 'много народа' versus 'много людей'. In that case I can see that there is some useful distinction that can be drawn.]

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    other answers concerning Genitive partitive case – Баян Купи-ка Jan 22 at 11:47
  • One more from Russian SE forum: (rus.stackexchange.com/questions/12895/…) – Alex_ander Jan 22 at 13:35
  • About the origins of the 'second genitive' (partitive genitive): Б. А. Успенский Избранные труды. Том III. Общее и славянское языкознание с.407 Очень точную формулировку мы находим у Ломоносова. [Имена], коими материя, на неопределенныя части разделяемая, знаменуется, имеют родительной на у. (Подготовительные материалы к "Российской грамматике", Ломоносов, VII, с. 647). books.google.ru/books/… – Alex_ander Jan 22 at 13:37
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    Борис Успенский. Часть и целое в русской грамматике (2004, с.79) ... мы можем сказать много народа и много народу, но, кажется, лучше сказать народу много, чем народа много. books.google.ru/books/… – Alex_ander Jan 22 at 13:55
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Initially the norm of using the Genitive case with много, сколько, мало, нету etc. with uncountables was just this.

Много народу, мало сахару, налить чаю, сколько сыру, рюмка коньяку.

It was called the partitive Genitive case, as you have already learned.

Nowadays the rule has simplified to using just regular Genitive case.

Много народа, мало сахара, налить чая, сколько сыра, рюмка коньяка.

But the partitive Genitive is also correct and is not colloquial. I would say it sounds more classical.

For me, ложка сахару, рюмка коньяку and стакан чаю sound more natural, though they can be classified as old-fashioned.

You can use both, but the first variant adds score to your language command. :)

Сколько народу is surely uncountable, we can express our surprise by this phrase, but we cannot ask for counting with this phrase. Сколько людей and сколько человек divides the crowd into individuals. You can express surprise with the help of these phrases as well, but you can also count people now.

Сколько народу на площади! Никогда не видел такую толпу!

Сколько людей вышло на площадь? - Примерно 5000 человек.

  • you mean it's incorrect to ask for example Сколько народУ сегодня было на спектакле? – Баян Купи-ка Jan 23 at 22:07
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    Thanks for this answer. The difficulty from learners, is that textbooks present the partitive genitive only briefly. It helped to have some historical background, to learn about 'register', and to get reassurance that the choice doesn't really matter! – xris Jan 24 at 1:36
  • @БаянКупи-ка, it is allright for the colloquial speech, but народ is uncountable, that's why it suits an exclamation better than a question. In either Genitive. – Elena Jan 24 at 5:33
  • 10 человек народу sounds right to me, same for воздух - мне не хватает воздуху occurs admittedly not awful lot, but it exists – Баян Купи-ка Jan 24 at 8:01
  • @БаянКупи-ка, 10 человек народу is just like 100 тысяч войск. It is a colloquialism we've got used to, but not a literature norm. – Elena Jan 24 at 8:04
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Well, много народу is considered colloquial but as you've already noticed by yourself is heavily used. It's a never-ending discussion on what to consider grammatical and what not. Facts are following: it's used and it's not accepted in any high-style usage - just like any noun in partitive.

One can invert the reasoning and ask themselves - should we consider grammatical forms that are virtually non-existent in colloquial everyday speech. Is "справка дана в том, что" grammatical? And you'll immediately see that the question is weak per se.

As of difference between много народу and много людей - they are almost identical but not completely. I'd rather suggest that "народу" is more abstract, so there's a chain "много народу" ~ "много людей" ~ "много человек". You can say: "Что-то сегодня много народу" or "что-то сегодня много людей" interchangeably but you hardly can substitute много людей in phrase в давке пострадало много людей with много народу - it will sound slightly off.

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But is there any significant semantic distinction? Or is it just a matter of personal preference?

No, there is no semantic distinction whatsoever. Both expressions mean exactly the same thing.

The choice between them is rather a matter of style, as ''много народу'' sounds more colloquial and old-fashioned than ''много народа.'' But both expressions are colloquial anyway.

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The Russian language usually uses the genitive case to express partialness. However, some Russian mass nouns have developed a distinct partitive case, also referred to as the "second genitive case". In modern Russian, use of the partitive case is often facultative. In many situations, the partitive and the genitive can be used almost synonymously: чашка чаю (partitive) and чашка чая (genitive) both mean "a cup of tea". The partitive variant is preferred with verbs: выпить чаю, "to drink some tea". The genitive variant is used more frequently when the mass noun is modified by an adjective: чашка горячего чая, "a cup of hot tea". Check here for the source and more information

Basically, Много народу refers to another case, which is called partitive and it was used in older times. Since it is not used so frequently in a modern Russian language, this case is often merged with genitive and hence refers as the second genetive case. If you would read classical Russian literature, you would certainly encounter partitive, but in modern Russian you would mostly hear it colloquially.

Except for the partitive, there are also other cases in modern language, which are often used colloquially, but not given in official grammar books when teaching pupils in Russian schools. For example, if you ever listened to a regular conversation between Russians, you must have encountered a vocative case without even realizing it: Даш, ты меня слышишь? Нет, Саш.

Here at the end you can find more information about additional cases which are used in Russian nowadays. If you are simply trying to learn Russian, do not focus on them too much, in the end they constitute a small group of all the situations and will come intuitively simply by mimicking Russians/ learning some constructed phrases by heart.

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