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?

  • 3
    "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, 2011 at 22:31
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    Sounds jarring to my ear. The 'of' is completely redundant.
    – Jez
    Jun 15, 2011 at 22:40
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    Cf. what if a much of a which of a wind for your amusement.
    – Robusto
    Jun 16, 2011 at 0:05
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    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/… Jun 16, 2011 at 2:22
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    @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. :) Jun 16, 2011 at 15:55

7 Answers 7


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 conveys 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, 2011 at 9:01
  • @psmears Yes the *of" is far more extensively used by Americans in this structure, than it is in Britain. But then prepositions are a big area of divergence between the spoken English of the two countries. One could write a book on the subject.
    – WS2
    Aug 28, 2017 at 20:16
  • I guess “big” feels a lot like “much”, because “How big a cat..” sounds awful to me.
    – Al Brown
    Aug 5, 2021 at 18:44
  • @EdwinAshworth: Please roll back your edit. The material is a direct quote from dictionary.com/browse/of ; you can't insert stuff that wasn't there, and certainly not stuff that's irrelevant to how and too usage. Feb 20, 2022 at 16:40
  • @Tinfoil Hat I'll leave the reformatting. Obviously, they could have improved their usage note by adding 'not that' to 'how' and 'too'; it's disingenuous to say 'irrelevant to' where 'not referred to here' is actually the case. Certainly, 'It's not that big [of] a deal' is closely related to 'It's too long [of] a drive'. We don't want a multiciplity of closely related questions. // Notice that psmears had already generalised to 'not that ADJ [of] a'. Feb 20, 2022 at 19:48

What nobody has mentioned is that "much" can be either an adjective or a noun (as well as an adverb). The improper use of "of" following an adjective is the result of confusing the noun "much" (How much of a problem is it?) with the adjective "much" (How much space do we need?).

So it's not that big a jump (see what I did there?) to see how someone could mistakenly apply the noun construction in a place where an adjective is involved: "How much of a scandal did it cause?" (correct) easily slides into "How big of a scandal did it cause?" (incorrect), and thence can spread to other adjectives like "How hot of a day was it?" (incorrect), etc. And in non-interrogative sentences, "Not that much of a scandal" (correct) becomes "Not that big of a scandal" (incorrect), and thence spreads to other adjectives like "Too loud of a noise" (incorrect).


How is the wh-word that questions manner, means, and adjective or adverb degree in direct wh-questions, with subject-auxiliary inversion (and do-support where necessary)

  • How did he get through the barbed wire?
  • How does she manage to keep so trim?
  • How long is that pole?
  • How rapidly should I breathe?

and in embedded wh-questions, with no inversion (and therefore no do-support needed)

  • They asked me how he got through the barbed wire.
  • I wonder how she manages to keep so trim.
  • He knows how long that pole is.
  • Nobody will tell me how rapidly I should breathe.

When dealing with degree in nouns, instead of adjectives or adverbs, there are problems with how to slot the noun into the phrase. The basic noun phrase with a comparable adjective is something like a good cook, the comparative is a better cook, and the superlative is the best cook. But there are grades inbetween, as there always are.

  • How good is the cook?

is the basic sentence, with all the pieces in place, but if you want them in a noun phrase suitable for questioning, you have two choices. Either you put them together in something like apposition, with an indefinite article between them to keep the phrases from running together or something

  • How good a cook is he?

or, if you don't like the sound of that, you can hang more tinsel on the noun by providing it with a preposition to introduce it. The traditional one is of.

  • How good of a cook is he?

Or, to process the sentences from this question, instead of this question,

  • How big a problem is it?
  • How big of a problem is it?

are both correct and both mean the same thing. Choices between them are entirely up to the habits, tastes, and preferences of the speaker, which will vary.

  • 1
    It's funny that we say: She is a helluva [hell of a] good cook. [Generally, we wouldn't say: helluva bad cook.] Though, of course, we'd have: How bad of a liar is he/How bad a liar is he? It would seem that if the answer can contain a noun, "of a" can be used: He's a mountain of a man. She's a paragon of honesty. There is something else here but I'm having trouble fishing it out.
    – Lambie
    Aug 5, 2021 at 20:31
  • @Lambie Yes, NP of a N is OK, as in "one hell of a problem", or your examples such as "a mountain of a man". In "How much of a problem", "how much of" is a quantifier. This is the crucial grammatical difference between that and *"How big of a problem", which doesn't fit that grammatical pattern. "How much of this water...?", OK. "how many of these potatoes...?", OK. "how big of a slice...?", no: there is no such quantifier as "(how) big of".
    – Rosie F
    Aug 6, 2021 at 6:31

"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, 2015 at 15:57
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    @Dan Bron '... curmudgeons have been caviling about language evolution since language was invented'. I trust you will post supporting evidence. Apr 28, 2015 at 16:36
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    @Dan Brown The dumbing-down of language has always been a real problem too. Take the advent of school cuneiform. Apr 28, 2015 at 16:48
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    Just don't call me Ashorth. Apr 28, 2015 at 23:24
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    So, Dan Bron, you're saying that if enough people say "I seen him at the office yesterday", it will be considered correct. Sorry about your lack of respect for language, how it works and the fact that it should be taught. Jun 1, 2016 at 12:13

“How big of a problem”:

of a problem is an adverbial prepositional phrase modifying "big" - to put it ungrammatically, “How problemly big”

“How big a problem”

a problem is acting as an adverbial phrase - the complement of "big".


"How Big of a Climate Betrayal Is the Willow Oil Project?" Headline in the NYT today, 17 March 2023. This discussion began 11 years ago - my impression is that, in American usage at least, the unnecessary "of" won the battle a couple of years back. It is now standard.


I think the construction in question could be considered to be still in dispute. Whether it becomes accepted as standard, only time will tell. And whether we like it or not, language change is driven by error. We have gotten from Old English to Modern English through people altering what was previously standard. That is how language works. We no longer speak and write like Chaucer because people kept making "mistakes" and "dumbing down" the language, if you must. The Scandinavian invaders started the dumbing down of Old English and the Norman invaders accelerated it. What is "correct" is determined (in the absence of an Academy or central authority) by consensus among users. If an overwhelming majority of proficient, native speakers accept a construction then that construction is "correct". This is how language works. But change doesn't occur that quickly and there will usually be quite a lag between a change first being heard and it becoming standard. And nothing I have said is advocacy, I'm simply reporting what we can see has happened and is still happening.

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    You could say that for every question on this site.
    – Chenmunka
    Jun 2, 2017 at 8:19
  • Well, Henry, I can agree with you in terms of how "Thou hast" might, in the long run, be replaced by "You have"...but I'm afraid that "I ain't" will never, at least in MY family, be used in favour of "I'm not". Before you know it, your argument could conceivably be applied to Mathematics, and if enough children add 2 + 2 and get 3, the answer will "become standard". God help us! Aug 22, 2018 at 13:31

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