This argument has come up at work, and I actually found it pretty interesting.

My colleague is arguing that you might say "a quarter of a pizza", whereas you'd just say "half of a pizza" rather than "a half of a pizza".

So my question is:

  • Which is correct: "a half of an [x]", "half of an [x]", or both?
  • Is there a difference in how we treat the word "half" as opposed to "quarter" or other fractions?
  • If so, why?

Hopefully this isn't a duplicate - there are some similar questions on the site, but nothing that addresses the first "a" used.

  • Originally, I believe it was a half of a pizza but, depending on the variety of English spoken, or even maybe the region, people tend to drop the article. Personally, I say, I'll see you in a half an hour. With regard to the pizza, I'd say, I can usually only eat a half of a pizza. But I'd also say, I'm not really hungry so I'll just have half of a pizza.
    – Babs
    Jan 29 '14 at 17:07

Both are correct, with "one half" probably predominating in formal writing, and "half" predominating in speech and informal writing. Why this is correct is not precisely clear to me, except that informal speech often does not follow the same "rules" as formal speech.

A sabbatical leave may be granted for the individual’s entire appointment period or for one-half this period, the appointment period being...
The Service Scholars Program provides 24 students each year with scholarship awards equal to one-half of the total yearly cost of Fisher's tuition, fees, and ...

Training plans for running your first or fastest half marathon.
With the information from this book, you can learn to speak English in half of the time it normally takes.

In speech, one often does not use "one/a" before half:

I'll be there in half an hour.
I don't know half these people.

  • 3
    You don't seem to specifically mention that we also often omit of after "half", but we can't do that either with "third", "quarter" etc. There are some borderline cases though - I'm reasonably happy with "My car's tank is {only} quarter full", for example, but I don't think I could tolerate that usage with "third". Jan 29 '14 at 17:42
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers - that's interesting. There are many things I don't even notice as a native speaker, but you're entirely correct. I think we speak in shortened forms. I think perhaps one reason we drop of is because there are so many recognized halves: half-nelson, halftime, half_life, half-drunk, half asleep, time and a half, etc. There are not as many equivalents with quarter or third. I don't know with any certainty. Jan 29 '14 at 19:12
  • Without giving the matter too much thought, my instinct is to agree with you. And I bet it "partly" applies to quarter because there are more quarters in the real world than there are thirds, so to speak. Jan 29 '14 at 19:59

Normally a shortened form is used: half a pizza, half a loaf of bread, half an hour. One may assume that the full formula was "a/the half of a pizza". Even "The clock struck the half-hour" is used.

  • I agree with your answer. Examples like "half of a pizza" and "a half an hour" are unnecessary and wordy ways to use the language.
    – Tristan r
    Jan 29 '14 at 19:00

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