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:
- an adverb, such as too,
- modifies an adjective, such as big,
- 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?