Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Those Sophisticated of Missiles

Posted by Neal on January 29, 2016

Picture adapted from original by Daniel Foster, Creative Commons

Picture adapted from original by Daniel Foster, Creative Commons

In guest post on The Volokh Conspiracy in 2004, I wrote about what I’ve since learned is sometimes called “intrusive of,” in phrases like too big of a deal, instead of the more-standard too big a deal. That post focused on the adverb too, but there’s actually a handful of adverbs that participate in this unusual kind of noun phrase, in which:

  1. an adverb, such as too,
  2. modifies an adjective, such as big,
  3. which in turn modifies a noun, such as deal.

The strange thing–well, one of the strange things–about this kind of noun phrase is that the indefinite article a(n) goes not before the whole adverb-adjective-noun string, as in *a too big deal, but between the adjective and the noun: too big a deal. Arnold Zwicky has coined the term exceptional degree marking (EDM) for these structures. The other adverbs that work in EDM constructions are so, as, and how:

  • I didn’t know it was so big a deal.
  • It wasn’t as big a deal as I’d thought it would be.
  • How big a deal did they make of it?

In addition to those adverbs, the determiners this and that can also do the job of specifying the degree of an adjective in an EDM construction:

  • Was it really that big a deal?
  • If it’s this big a deal, let’s do it!

I’ll follow the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and use degree modifiers to cover the degree-modifying adverbs and the degree-modifying determiners this and that. EDM constructions are easiest to form with singular, count nouns, such as deal–in other words, nouns that are compatible with the singular determiner a(n). When you try to make an EDM construction with a mass noun or a plural noun, it’s not so easy:

  • ?/*It’s not too good coffee.
  • ?/*I didn’t know it was so good coffee.
  • ?/*It wasn’t as good coffee as I’d thought it would be.
  • ?/*How good coffee did they serve?
  • ?/*Was it really that good coffee?
  • ?/*If it’s this good coffee, we can sell it.
  • ?/*They’re not too good coffeemakers.
  • ?/*I didn’t know they were so good coffeemakers.
  • ?/*They weren’t as good coffeemakers as I’d thought they would be.
  • ?/*How good coffeemakers do they make?
  • ?/*Were they really that good coffeemakers?
  • ?/*If they’re this good coffeemakers, we can sell them.

This is where the intrusive of proves its worth. All the sentences involving the big deal could be phrased with big of a deal, too, and be considered completely standard by many speakers, and at worst as a somewhat nonstandard variant by others (and as the favored cliche “nails on a chalkboard” by a shrinking number of speakers). But the sentences with mass nouns and plural nouns don’t work at all without something like an intrusive of in them. Here are the examples I found and posted in 2004:

  • a2ps using too big of paper on dj500, and magicfilter eats text
  • Too Deep of Water
  • Too small of rooms for the price!!
  • Checkout/processing with too long of titles
  • Too high of volumes for CORSIM

When I was thinking about EDMs recently, as we all do on occasion, it occurred to me that an extra complication was possible with the degree-modifying determiners this/that that wasn’t possible with too/so/as/how. As determiners, this and that have plural forms! So what happened, I wondered, when speakers set out to create an EDM construction, with a plural noun, with a degree-modifying determiner? Would they still use singular this or that without regard to the plurality of the noun? In other words, would they treat this or that as if it wasn’t even a determiner at all? As it turns out, yes, as these hits from COCA show. I searched for “this|that”+ADJ+”of”+PLURAL_NOUN, as well as “this|that”+ADJ+”a”+PLURAL_NOUN, and got these few hits:

  • Maybe the standard one doesn’t have that big of pecs.
  • You know, the news of the settlement didn’t really make that big of headlines in the state, but it showed two things.
  • Whenever Dignan came to visit me he would act like he and Swifty weren’t that good of friends, but that was just to make me feel better.
  • And we really before her didn’t have that good of doctors.
  • Well, we had problems. But they weren’t that big a problems.

But COCA also shows that a few speakers are starting to swap out the singular this/that for a plural these/those to degree-modifying purposes in EDMs involving plural nouns. For this search, I looked for “these|those”+ADJ+”of”+PLURAL_NOUN and “these|those”+ADJ+”a”+PLURAL_NOUN:

  • These deep of lines in my cheeks ain’t all due to hard wind and burnin’ sun.
  • Well, I mean, they didn’t say in those harsh a terms
  • And then we would go right over Afghanistan after that and the Taliban and stuff didn’t — wasn’t known to have these — those sophisticated of missiles.

I love the little stutter in the last one, as the speaker struggles with how to handle the syntax. Would you have stuttered, too? What do you think of these odd of noun phrases?

5 Responses to “Those Sophisticated of Missiles”

  1. C. said

    I’d just use “such”.

    • Neal said

      That’ll work in place of so [ADJ] a and this/that [ADJ] a, but not as [ADJ] a or how [ADJ] a. Besides, even for the cases where it does work, that just sidesteps the interesting question that we’re trying to answer. It’s like wondering whether the past tense of shine is shone or shined, and deciding that you’ll always just say was shining.

      • Pauly Heller said

        I tend to agree with C. Some of these constructions just need rephrasing, especially in written form. I think we can get away with a different sort of a construction (ha!) in spoken English, but as an editor, I’m always looking for ways to trim excess verbiage. Of course, I come from an area of southeastern Pennsylvania where we commonly said things like, “This shirt needs washed (or ‘warshed’); these pants need ironed (or ‘ahrned’).”

  2. dw said

    Constructions like “too big of paper” are common in Indian English.

  3. I grew up saying “too big of a deal” and didn’t learn that some people object to the “of” until relatively recently, but even I find some of the mass or plural noun constructions a little iffy. “Too good coffee” sounds flat-out wrong, and “too good of coffee” sounds a little better but still awkward. The ones with “these” or “those” sound stranger still, I think. They’re kind of in that odd space where I can’t tell if they’re ungrammatical or just really awkward and uncommon.

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