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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
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    Sounds jarring to my ear. The 'of' is completely redundant. – Jez Jun 15 '11 at 22:40
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    Cf. what if a much of a which of a wind for your amusement. – Robusto Jun 16 '11 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/… – FumbleFingers Jun 16 '11 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. :) – FumbleFingers Jun 16 '11 at 15:55
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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.

EDIT

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
  • @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 '17 at 20:16
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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).

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"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 '15 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. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 28 '15 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. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 28 '15 at 16:48
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    Just don't call me Ashorth. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 28 '15 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. – Michael Scott Jun 1 '16 at 12:13
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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 '17 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! – Michael Scott Aug 22 '18 at 13:31

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