Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Those High a Losses

Posted by Neal on May 11, 2010

Listening to All Things Considered this evening, I caught this story on how much the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster is likely to cost BP in court-awarded damages. At one point, they had a sound bite from one Charles Ebbinger, the director of energy security research at the Brookings Institution, who talked about possible limits to the amount of money BP would have to pay. He said:

But legally, I’m not sure that BP would actually have to incur those high a losses, from a purely legal perspective.

Back in 2004, as a guest blogger on the Volokh Conspiracy, I wrote about how adjective phrases like too big are unremarkable when they follow a linking verb (as in is too big), but behave strangely when you have them modify a noun. Let’s say you’re talking about a house that’s too big. How would you refer to it? The too-big house? Hmmm. Probably you’d just do like I did : the house that’s too big. But where things get really weird is if you’re using the indefinite article a. In that case, you have a third option (or even a fourth, for some speakers):

  1. a too-big house
  2. a house that’s too big
  3. too big a house
  4. too big of a house

Hearing Charles Ebbinger on NPR reminded me that it’s not just adjective phrases beginning with too that have this unusual syntax; they can also begin with so (as in so big a problem), or that (as in that small a ship). Furthermore, he reminded me of another question I’d explored in the Volokh Conspiracy post: how the too/so/that+Adjective construction would look when it modified a mass noun or a plural noun. Would the singular article a disappear? At the time, I found a few hits like too deep of water and too long of titles, but apparently didn’t find any examples like too small of rooms.

Now I’ve caught Charles Ebbinger’s sentence, a perfect example of what I was looking for. The singular a didn’t disappear; it stayed right in there. But surprise — look what did turn into a plural! Ebbinger turned the that into a those to agree with the plural losses! In that high a loss, the that isn’t even acting as a pronoun; it’s an adverb modifying high, so there shouldn’t be any need for it to be made plural. The terms singular and plural don’t even apply to adverbs (at least, not in English), but still and all, the that looked like a singular pronoun, and was treated accordingly.

I did some Google-searching for strings like those high a and those big a, and found some other examples:

now whats your opinion about how long one of these rearends would last running at those high a speeds?? (link)
Shes NO dancer. Just look at those legs. They are way to big. If she was a REAL dancer she wouldn’t have those big A thighs. (link)

Then I went to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (which didn’t exist when I did the 2004 post) to do some more general searching. First, I was just curious what the ratio of too+Adj+a to too+Adj+of+a would be. It turned out to be about 99:1, with 15,432 hits for “too [JJ] a”, and 156 for “too [JJ] of a”. The ratio was much closer for that+Adj+a vs. that+Adj+of+a, more like 5:2. (508 hits for “that [JJ] a”, and 207 for “that [JJ] of a”.)

Then I moved on to searching for examples with plural nouns. First I searched for examples of that+Adj+a, and found just one hit:

Well, we had problems. But they weren’t that big a problems.

No hits with the intrusive of. Next I searched for examples of those+Adj+a, and again got just one hit:

Well, I mean, they didn’t say in those harsh a terms.

Again, no hits with the intrusive of.

There are other interesting wrinkles in the syntax of adjectives modified by adverbs of degree. Larry Horn found an interesting case that he wrote about on the American Dialect Society listserv. This one involved the wh-question degree adverb how:

From a blogger’s posting on the Boston Globe web site on last night’s game in which the Boston Celtics unexpectedly dominated the favored Cleveland Cavs, and on Charles Barkley’s tendentious commentary on TNT:

How big fat of a jerk is Barkley? He should be forced to do the next broadcast in a Celtics uniform just to come close to evening up his thus far complete and unwarranted partiality for Cavs.

For me, “how big of a jerk” is fine and I wouldn’t even blink too hard at “how fat of a jerk”, but “how big fat of a jerk” definitely involves pushing the envelope.

My question to you: How many would say how big fat (of) a jerk, and how many would say how big (of) a fat jerk?

14 Responses to “Those High a Losses”

  1. Jennifer M said

    “How big fat of a jerk” is just awful, and although “how big of a fat jerk” isn’t euphonious by any means, it doesn’t have that horribly discordant, ungrammatical twinge that the former has. For me, my brain autocorrected the first instance of “how big fat of a jerk” to “how big of a fat jerk” when I was reading quickly, presumably to spare me.
    Just as a note, phrases like “weren’t that big a problems” and “in those harsh a terms” are definitely grammatical questionable. Wouldn’t they be better expressed using phrases like “weren’t such/very big problems” or “in such harsh terms”, which are, for me at least, semantically equivalent? Why do these (presumably) native speakers use such wonky constructions? Unless they begin to use the “that” + ADJ + a + NOUN, realize only halfway through that the noun is plural, and have to shift partway accordingly?

    • Neal said

      Yes, definitely grammatically questionable, and I’d definitely use such harsh terms, etc. as a semantic equivalent … until I tried to ask a question and found this workaround unavailable for how harsh (a? of? of a? nothing?) terms.

    • The Ridger said

      For me, the problem is that “a big fat jerk” isn’t [a [big [fat jerk]]] or [a [big][fat jerk]] – he’s [a [big fat [jerk]] or [a big fat [jerk]] – I’m having bracketing problems. What I mean is “big fat” is a unit. It’s not like a “big brown-haired jerk”. So I can’t say “how big a fat jerk”.

  2. Herb Stahlke said

    A nice piece of analysis, but have you considered the possibility that “a” is not the indefinite article but a reduction of “of” as in /tu V Dowz/ and in the shift of “have” to “of” after modals /kUd V gOn/ that shows up often in writing? Adj+”of”+noun is fairly common, even required with partitive constructions. Treating is as reduced “of” would be consistent with your comment that the “of a” construction does not occur in some of the phrases. The other question can also be asked: why call it an indefinite article?

    • Neal said

      I never considered your analysis, but I will now. I took a to be the indefinite article because it and the clear cases of a as the indefinite article are in complementary distribution, and because “too big a house” has the same meaning as “a house that’s too big”.

      I figured the intrusive of arose by analogy with partitive constructions like too much of a good thing. Though I haven’t traced the development of too+Adj+(of+)a, I believe that the of version is the newer one, based on the fact that the of-less version is more numerous. Of course, this would also be consistent with a shift from an original of version that is now more than halfway complete. Do you have any evidence on this point? Although MWDEU has an entry for “of a”, it doesn’t address this question.

    • Ellen K. said

      I had the same thought. That some speakers think of “a” as a form of “of”, or having that meaning, and so can match it with a plural noun.

  3. kip said

    I chose “other” and wrote in “how much of a big fat jerk”, as in: “How much of a big fat jerk is Barkley?” I probably wouldn’t say any of the others unless I got stranded mid-sentence and had to change course.

  4. mquander said

    I’m an expert insulter and I would say “how much of a big fat jerk” without thinking twice, sidestepping the issue.

  5. Jonathon said

    I also went with “how much of a big fat jerk”.

    Also, I think your example of “those big A thighs” really means “those big-ass thighs”.

  6. Neal said

    Kip, Mquander, Jonathon: how much of a big fat jerk is a good workaround. It’s probably what I’d say, too.

    Jonathon: When I was writing the post, I considered your correction of big A thighs to big-ass thighs (or big ass-thighs, in XKCD-land). But in reading the rest of the comment it came from, I ultimately judged that it was a relevant hit after all. But you could be right.

  7. Jan Freeman said

    I’m with Jonathon: I read “those big A thighs” as a euphemistic version of “big-ass thighs,” with the capitalization there to make clear that it wasn’t just “a.” I think the tone of the comment supports that (more aggressive) reading, too.

  8. Estel said

    I think with plural nouns, I would include the ‘of’ but not the article:
    that big of problems

    *that big a problems
    *that big of a problems

    *those big a problems
    *those big of a problems
    *those big of problems

  9. Estel said

    Here is an example with a non-count noun (‘silence’) that I created spontaneously (elsewhere online) about a month ago and just noticed after reading your post:

    “It also has too long of silence at the beginning”

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