Q: Here’s what an NYC teacher had to say about the recent state English tests for grades 3-8: “I felt like the students really were just being tested on how well of a test-taker they were, not necessarily how great of a reader they were or how great a writer they were.” Am I the classic grump who refuses to surrender what’s left of my tenuous hold on good grammar? Please explain just why “how well of a test taker” and “how great of a reader” don’t make sense. At my advanced age (83), I’m too darned tired to look it up!
A: Grumpy or not, you’re right. That teacher’s sentence is a mess. But let’s not rush to put a dunce cap on his head and stand him in the corner. There are extenuating circumstances here.
We tracked down the sentence in question and found that it was made on WNYC during an interview with several teachers about the tests.
People who usually talk or write in standard English sometimes trip over a few words when speaking off the cuff, especially when they’re nervous about being on the radio.
If that third-grade teacher had been given a few seconds to think before opening his mouth, his English might not have sounded to you like fingernails on a blackboard.
Here are a couple of possible revisions of the sentence, keeping singulars with singulars and plurals with plurals:
“I felt as if a student really was just being tested on how good a test-taker he was, not necessarily how great a reader or how great a writer he was.”
“I felt as if the students really were just being tested on how good they were at test-taking, not necessarily how great they were at reading or writing.”
Now, back to the problem sentence. What bothered you about it was the speaker’s use of “well of a test taker” and “great of a reader,” so we’ll discuss those first.
Let’s say right up front that the speaker’s use of the adverb “well” is a major misdemeanor. We’re fairly broadminded here at Grammarphobia, but in this world a student is a good test taker, not a well test taker (unless you’re talking about his health).
Now on to those “of a” constructions. We ran a blog post last January about what some linguists call the “big of” syndrome—using “of” in phrases like “not that big of a deal” and “too long of a drive.” These generally consist of adjective + “of a” + noun (or noun phrase).
As we pointed out, constructions with a noun described in terms of another noun (like “a devil of a time,” “a prince of a man”) are standard English. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples going back to the 1600s.
However, when an adjective is part of the pattern some usages are considered standard and some aren’t.
In standard English, we commonly use certain adjectives of quantity—“much,” “more,” “less,” “enough”—in this way, as in “enough of a problem” and “too much of a drive.”
But with adjectives of degree—“good/bad,” “big/small,” “long/short,” “old/young,” “hard/easy,” “near/far,” and so on—the “of a” pattern is not considered standard.
With that class of adjectives, the “of”-less versions (“not that big a problem”) are standard, while the “of” versions (“not that big of a problem”) are regarded as dialectal.
While this dialectal usage is nonstandard, it shouldn’t be called incorrect—just inappropriate in formal English.
The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the adjectival idiom is “almost entirely oral” and is “rare in print except in reported speech.”
“The only stricture on it suggested by our evidence is that it is a spoken idiom: you will not want to use it much in writing except of the personal kind,” M-W adds.
But again, we’re talking about adjectival usages here. As for the adverbial “how well of a test-taker,” fuggedaboutit!
Yes, “how well of a” is out there in the ether (we got 2.9 million hits when we googled it), but we haven’t found a single language commentator who speaks well of it.
A final note. You didn’t mention it, but some usage authorities would object to that teacher’s use of “like” as a conjunction. They would have recommended that he start his sentence with “I felt as if” instead of “I felt like.”
We don’t use “like” as a conjunction ourselves, but the ground is shifting here and some language authorities see no problem with it. We ran a post on the blog a few years ago about the usage.
As we wrote then, writers have been using “like” as a conjunction since the 14th century. Chaucer did it. Shakespeare, too. So did Keats, Emily Brontë, Thackeray, George Eliot, Dickens, Kipling, Shaw, and so on.
The Merriam-Webster’s usage guide says that objections to “like” as a conjunction were apparently “a 19th-century reaction to increased conjunctive use at that time.”
Although conservative usage guides and grammar sticklers still object to the use of “like” as a conjunction, that opinion is far from unanimous.
Merriam-Webster’s says “the usage has never been less than standard,” and the “belief that like is a preposition but not a conjunction has entered the folklore of usage.”
Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.) doesn’t go quite so far, but it says “like as a conjunction is struggling towards acceptable standard or neutral ground” and “the long-standing resistance to this omnipresent little word is beginning to crumble.”