English English language Expression Grammar Linguistics Usage

Not that big of a deal?

Q: It sounds wrong to me, but just about everybody inserts an unnecessary “of” in an expression like “It’s not that big of a deal.” How big a deal is this? Is it incorrect?

A: This “of a” usage is a subject that readers of our blog have often raised, and it’s one that we wrote about in 2007.

Back then, we were pretty dismissive of the usage, which some linguists have called the “big of” syndrome.

But this is such a common American colloquialism that it deserves a closer look, so we’ll expand on what we wrote before.

We’ve often said (as we did in a post last summer) that not all redundancies are bad. An extra word can be justified if it serves an emphatic or supportive purpose, as in “first time ever” or “three different times.”

But as we noted in 2007, the unnecessary “of” in “not that big of a deal” doesn’t seem to add any particular emphasis or color (though it might add informality).

We speculated that this usage could have been influenced by phrases like “a whale of a good time,” “a monster of a party,” and so on.

In those constructions, with a noun described in terms of another noun, the “of” is standard English: “a prince of a man” … “a devil of a time” …“that rascal of a boy” … “a little jewel of a cottage”  …“a hell of a mess.”

This is a time-honored English usage. Among literary examples, the Oxford English Dictionary cites “his little concubine of a wife,” from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922).

And evidence in the OED shows that noun phrases with “hell of a …” and “devil of a …” have long been part of the language, dating back to the 1680s and 1740s, respectively.

So that construction—noun + “of a” + noun—is standard English, acceptable even in the best writing.

However, when an adjective is part of the pattern—adjective + “of a” + noun—some usages are 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 English.

With that class of adjectives, the “of”-less versions are regarded as standard: “not that big a problem,” “too long a drive,” etc. But the “of” versions are regarded as dialectal: “not that big of a problem,” “too long of a drive.”

While this dialectal usage is nonstandard, it shouldn’t be called incorrect—just inappropriate in formal English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage summarizes this dialectal construction as “a fairly recent American idiom that has nearly a fixed form: that or how or too, or sometimes as, followed by an adjective, then of a and a noun.”

The usage guides traces its appearance to the early 1940s, but says it’s probably “somewhat older.”

M-W cites examples from television interviews involving sports figures, newscasters, mayors, and others: “that difficult of a shot” … “that long of a speech” … “that big of a mess” … “too good of a loser” … “how good of a shape,” and so on.

“This current idiom,” M-W says, “is just one of a group of idioms that are characterized by the presence of of a as the link between a noun and some sort of preceding qualifier.”

What’s different about this more recent usage is that the preceding qualifier is one of degree, as we said above, rather than quantity.

The linguist Arnold M. Zwicky commented on this difference in a 1995 paper entitled “Exceptional Degree Markers.”

“This use of of,” Zwicky noted, “is presumably an extension of the rule for NPs [noun phrases] with quantity (rather than degree) modifiers like more, less, enough, and a bit, in combination with singular count nouns: more of a liar, enough of a linguist, a bit of a charmer.”

Kenneth G. Wilson, writing in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English in 1993, made much the same point. He wrote that although “how hard of a job” is nonstandard English, it’s analogous to “how much of a job,” which is “clearly idiomatic and Standard.”

Wilson also suggested—two decades ago—that nonstandard “of a” usages “could achieve idiomatic status before too long, despite the objections of many commentators.”

Until then, he said, they should be left out of “your Planned and Oratorical speech and your edited English.”

Has that time arrived? Well, these dialectal “of a” usages are becoming acceptable idioms in casual speech and informal writing. However, we still wouldn’t recommend them in formal English, written or spoken.

In fact, this dialectal construction—like “how long of a drive”—isn’t found much in print anyway, except in the most casual writing.  

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) calls it an informal oral usage that’s confined, so far, to American English.

Merriam-Webster’s says the same: “Our evidence shows the idiom to be almost entirely oral; it is rare in print except in reported speech.”

As M-W concludes: “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.”

It would be an understatement to call this idiom common in American speech. One linguist has written that for lots of speakers, it’s more than common—it’s preferred. 

“Many speakers of American English would never say too big a tree but rather too big of a tree,” Edward L. Blansitt Jr. wrote in his paper “Non-Constituent Connectives” (1983).

For such speakers, Blansitt wrote more than 30 years ago, “of is simply a boundary marker between the preceding descriptive adjective and following indefinite article.”

Since spoken English is the English that’s quoted in print and heard on the news, you can expect  to encounter “that big of a deal” for many years to come.

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