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Quite a few phrases in English are constructed like so:

How [adjective] a [noun]...?

This is the question form of the construction, which is often answered with the negative:

Not that [adjective] a [noun].

or the positive:

Quite [adjective] a [noun].

However, from time to time I'll hear the word 'of' inserted before the 'a', e.g.:

Not that [adjective] of a [noun].

This usually sounds wrong to me, with the exception of the case where the adjective 'much' is used. So, this sounds fine to my ear:

Not that much of a problem.

whereas this doesn't:

Not that loud of a noise.

Why is it that 'much' should be used with 'of', and other adjectives not? Is it because 'much' is seen as measuring a quantity (of something), whereas other adjectives that may be used in this construction are seen as measuring the quality of a whole thing?

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"Not that loud of a noise" sounds perfectly fine to me and in fact brings more google hits than "not that loud a noise"… –  ghoppe Jun 15 '11 at 22:31
Sounds jarring to my ear. The 'of' is completely redundant. –  Jez Jun 15 '11 at 22:40
Cf. what if a much of a which of a wind for your amusement. –  Robusto Jun 16 '11 at 0:05
Here's an NGram suggesting Not that [adjective] a [noun] is gathering currency in general. And that the of version hovers around without being dominant... ngrams.googlelabs.com/… –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 '11 at 2:22
@Unreason: Yeah, I liked it too. Great question, actually, since I bet we all have some 'personal cut-off' point where we wouldn't feel comfortable with including the word of. But we all start off at the other end of the scale being happy with Not that much of a contentious issue, which in the end this question secretly is. :) –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 '11 at 15:55

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

What about "not that high (of) a fence"? "not that red (of) a heart" "not that smart (of) a person? not that big (of) a problem?

I would argue that if you use the word that to qualify the adjective, the of is in fact necessary to convey the meaning of comparison of a specific entity to the class of general entities to which it belongs.

I'm sure the usage can be regional, as well. There is no hard and fast rule.


Hey, I did some more research. Dictionary.com has the following usage note for "of" :

Of is sometimes added to phrases beginning with the adverb how or too followed by a descriptive adjective: How long of a drive will it be? It's too hot of a day for tennis. This construction is probably modeled on that in which how or too is followed by much, an unquestionably standard use in all varieties of speech and writing: How much of a problem will that cause the government? There was too much of an uproar for the speaker to be heard. The use of of with descriptive adjectives after how or too is largely restricted to informal speech. It occurs occasionally in informal writing and written representations of speech.

So, I suppose that's the reason why adjectives other than "much" combined with "of" sound odd to your ear. I believe "that" can be included with "how" or "too" in this synopsis. Replacing "much" with another adjective occurs occasionally in informal writing and in speech, but isn't unquestionably standard.

When I say these constructions out loud, to me, I often want to insert the of but perhaps that has something more to say about the informality of my speech rather than the correctness of the construction. :)

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Actually "Not that ADJ a NOUN" is rather more common than "Not that ADJ of a NOUN": COCA reports 153 versus 65. And BNC reports that it dominates 7/0, which is consistent with my intuition that the "of" is a North American thing - as a British English speaker it just sounds wrong to me :) –  psmears Jun 16 '11 at 9:01

"How big of a problem" is, simply, incorrect usage. The usage note for "of" in Dictionary.com is too charitable. Incorrect usage often occurs in informal writing and speech, but in the age of social media we should not confuse frequent usage with correct usage.

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If not the dictionary, then who draws the line on what's acceptable and not acceptable? Usage which becomes frequent is usage which ultimately becomes correct; that is how dictionaries and grammars are written. (And social media has nothing to do with this; curmudgeons have been caviling about language evolution since language was invented.) –  Dan Bron Apr 28 at 15:57
@Dan Bron '... curmudgeons have been caviling about language evolution since language was invented'. I trust you will post supporting evidence. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 28 at 16:36
@EdwinAshworth Your trust will be betrayed, then. I have a policy of substantiating my answers, but that policy does not extend to comments. However, you may be interested in this tangentially related xkcd comic. –  Dan Bron Apr 28 at 16:37
@Dan Brown The dumbing-down of language has always been a real problem too. Take the advent of school cuneiform. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 28 at 16:48
Just don't call me Ashorth. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 28 at 23:24

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