Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Exceptional degree marking’ Category

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?

Posted in Exceptional degree marking, Morphology | 5 Comments »

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?

Posted in Exceptional degree marking, Variation | 14 Comments »

It Takes Too, Baby

Posted by Neal on July 24, 2004

Every now and then I’ll read a column on English grammar where the author or one of his readers is complaining about the unnecessary of in phrases like this:

too big of a job

The columnists that I’ve seen address this issue always stick very boringly to the tiny question of whether the of belongs or not. They never get into the questions I’d like to see discussed, so I guess I’ll have to do it myself.

Posted in Exceptional degree marking | 3 Comments »