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Watching a cooking show a few days ago, the lady that presented it used the expression a half a cup or a half a teaspoon several times during the programme.

I've heard half a [something] used before lots of times, but never with an extra a stuck at the front as in a half a [something]. Is this a typical American expression? Is it slang? Is it a dialect?

Background:

  • It was shown on Food Network UK, but obviously was an American show. (Just checked while writing this, it was presented by Paula Deen).
  • I'm not a native speaker, never been to the US, but been to the UK countless times, so I wouldn't necessarily know anything that's specific to the US.
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I've found a few discussions such as this one on 'a half an hour'. @DeepYellow has a good point mentioning "of". I would likely say a half of a cup of sugar, for example, and I think in cases like a recipe calling for one-half of one egg I might be likely to say a half an egg. I don't think I'd always use the article - I might say: These deviled eggs are just a half an egg with some filling; you take half an egg and put the filling in it. (AmE speaker, east coast USA) –  aedia λ Sep 26 '11 at 17:12
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Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/21804/… –  z7sg Ѫ Sep 26 '11 at 17:52
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4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

"A half a cup" is abbreviated speech for "a half of a cup". (Barrie England argues convincingly against this, but the contraction of of a to a happens enough in casual speech that it is hard to believe that this is not an old instance of this tendency.)

Sometimes of is lazily pronounced a as in "a ton a bricks", and the sequence of a just gets shortened to a.

In England, a "cup of tea" is often abbreviated "a cuppa".

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I would spell it cuppa :) –  Karl Knechtel Sep 26 '11 at 8:19
    
@KarlKnechtel: Corrected! Thanks. –  Codie CodeMonkey Sep 26 '11 at 8:31
    
+1 Thanks, I never thought of a possible of in there. –  takrl Sep 26 '11 at 9:34
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‘Half a [something]’ is normal in BrEng as well as AmEng, and I see no need to justify it by saying it’s short for ‘half of a’. It is enshrined in sayings such as ‘Half a loaf is better than no bread at all’ and ‘Half a pound of tupenny rice’, where the insertion of ‘of’ would look strange. We describe six as ‘half a dozen’ and not as ‘half of a dozen’ and 30 minutes as ‘half an hour’, and not as ‘half of an hour’. In such formulations, ‘half’ is an adjective, as it also is in this citation from Trollope illustrating the OED’s entry for adjectival ‘half’: ‘Though the lord might be only half a man, Julia walked out from the church every inch a countess.’

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+1 Good point, although I do hear "half of a cup" as well. And the relaxation of of to a is very common. Still as you say it's entrenched and can stand on its own without justification. –  Codie CodeMonkey Sep 26 '11 at 8:29
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Sorry, even though I find your answer interesting, it doesn't provide what I'm looking for. I'm familiar with half a cup, but not with a half a cup, and that extra a was the point of my question. Maybe it wasn't clear enough, I edited it in that respect. –  takrl Sep 26 '11 at 9:33
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I think Barrie's answer is more a reply to DeepYellow's answer than an answer to the question. –  Waggers Sep 26 '11 at 10:54
    
Ah, sorry. You're right, it is unusual. I can imagine a recipe giving the instruction 'Take half a cup of sugar' or 'Take a half cup of sugar', but not 'Take a half a cup of sugar.' That looks strange, but I suppose it might just possibly come out like that in speeech. –  Barrie England Sep 26 '11 at 11:02
    
If it had been a one-off, I'd probably haven't even noticed it. But it was mentioned more than ten times during that programme and applied to several types of containers (cup, teaspoon and tablespoon I still remember), so I thought this was rather strange. That's why I researched who the presenter was, to maybe find out if it's a regional peculiarity in the area she comes from. –  takrl Sep 26 '11 at 12:21
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"A half a(n) X" is an Americanism; I suspect it may be somewhat more prevalent in the South, but it is certainly not exclusive to that region. Looking at the Google Ngram for "a half a mile" you see that the frequency peaks at .000013 around 1850-1890 in American English. This is roughly six times the highest frequency of this expression in British English (1940-1965). Here is an 1868 New York magazine for teachers complaining about it.

Some writers and speakers have a careless way of using half as an adjective with an a both before and after it, as "We had gone a half a mile or more" ... . Here, of course, the an or a is superfluous, and should be omitted.

I've left out a number of examples in the quote above, the cited ones of which come from New York, New England, and Virginia. I'm sure the author took great pride in finding the example: "Thousands cannot construct a half a dozen consecutive sentences without violating some rule of grammar."

And if it's not clear from the quote above, just because some Americans use it doesn't mean that it's considered to be correct grammar here.

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At the risk of sounding naive on this site, thank you for mentioning Google Ngram, which I've not used before or heard of. Can you tell me a way to perhaps locate a specific book listed in the statistics Google Ngram produces? (I see there is no link to jump to from the chart.) For instance, there is only one reference to "Lafayette, NJ" and I'd be curious to locate any book making that reference. –  Sister Sep 27 '11 at 3:25
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There are links below the chart that will take you to books Google Book Search finds containing the terms, although they don't seem to correspond exactly to the corpus Google Ngrams uses. –  Peter Shor Sep 27 '11 at 3:29
    
Ah: culturomics.org/Resources/A-users-guide-to-culturomics "The Google Labs N-gram Viewer is the first tool of its kind, capable of precisely and rapidly quantifying cultural trends based on massive quantities of data. It is a gateway to culturomics! The browser is designed to enable you to examine the frequency of words (banana) or phrases ('United States of America') in books over time. You'll be searching through over 5.2 million books: ~4% of all books ever published!" Etc. –  Sister Sep 27 '11 at 3:29
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You also have to be careful with Google Ngrams. For example, the frequency of British usage of "a half an hour" was a lot higher than I would have expected from the frequency of British usage of "a half a mile". I eventually figured out this was due to the phrase's appearance in speeds such as "two miles and a half an hour". –  Peter Shor Sep 27 '11 at 3:35
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It seems to me that in this case a half a cup and a half a teaspoon may be driven by the usage of measuring cups and spoons with the specified capacity. These expressions imply using, e.g., a measuring cup holding half a cup, etc.

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+1 I'm not sure if this is the actual reason, but your answer is supported by the fact that, for the a half a cup case, they actually had a huge scoop-type spoon which held the exact quantity. (This was something I had never seen before in cooking, maybe an American speciality again). –  takrl Sep 26 '11 at 14:04
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From my experience, sets of 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 and 1 cup are common in the US and elsewhere as are sets of 1/4, 1/2, 1 tbsp and 1 tsp. –  Itamar Sep 26 '11 at 14:10
    
I'm not going to say they don't exist in germany, but I can say that I've never seen them here. Also, I never saw anything like it when visiting my UK friends, but maybe their kitchens are just ill-equipped ;-) –  takrl Sep 26 '11 at 14:13
    
... and there are even more comprehensive sets ... –  Itamar Sep 26 '11 at 14:24
    
These are not as useful in the UK and Europe, because unlike in the U.S., if you add more than a tablespoon or two of any solid ingredients, you weigh them. –  Peter Shor Sep 26 '11 at 17:22
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