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People say this so much (instead of "another whole" way, etc.) that I wonder how it got started. How did "another whole..." get changed to "a whole nother..."?

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  • 16
    There's a bit of false premise here: the "proper" form of a whole nother is a whole other, not another whole (the latter sounds more wrong than nother).
    – Marthaª
    Jul 7 '11 at 13:17
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    "Another whole way of looking at things" makes no sense to me. Another whole way? As opposed to another partial way?
    – Marthaª
    Jul 7 '11 at 13:28
  • 1
    A whole other way? As opposed to a partial other way? This cuts both ways.
    – Daniel
    Jul 7 '11 at 13:31
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    @drm65: No, because the expression is formed by analogy with things like "A whole new world of opportunity" - you couldn't say "*A new whole world of opportunity" to mean the same thing.
    – psmears
    Jul 7 '11 at 13:34
  • 9
    As an adverb, "whole" means "completely", so "a whole other way" means "a completely different way" (yes, as opposed to a partially different way). If you switch the order around, however, then "whole" becomes an adjective modifying "way", which is just nonsensical.
    – Marthaª
    Jul 7 '11 at 13:38
45

This is an example of metanalysis: taking two words that occur in close proximity, and re-analyzing them so that the word boundary changes position. In this case, the common phrase an other is reanalyzed as a nother, which then allows the insertion of the word whole to give a whole nother.

Metanalysis has happened several times in English, the most common being the word apron, which was originally napron, but suffered metanalysis from a napron into an apron. For this reason, I doubt that the creation of this phrase was an example of deliberate play on words. Rather, it's an example of a process of word-formation which operates sporadically in English, and has for a long time.

This metanalysis isn't complete, as most speakers, including myself, don't really use the word nother except in this phrase. I would never say the nother thing, for example.

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  • 1
    @JSbangs: another nice example is ewt becoming newt, which goes in the opposite direction from napron*/*apron.
    – PLL
    Jul 18 '11 at 7:20
  • Excellent answer. I'd use this phrase aloud but never write it, so I don't know whether it will ever survive to get in print.
    – Lisa
    Aug 3 '11 at 8:00
  • A third example is ‘an adder’, which used to be ‘a nadder’ (related to German Natter). Jul 17 '13 at 10:38
  • More background on this: quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/… Mar 4 '17 at 16:10
16

In addition to JSBangs' metanalysis reference I found the following in classical rhetoric (as one often does):

Tmesis, Gk. "a cutting", Also sp. timesis, dissectio

Interjecting a word or phrase between parts of a compound word or between syllables of a word.

Examples:

  • In the following sentence the word "appear" occurs between the two words that make up the compound "hereafter."
    This is the place where Christ will come, as will here appear after.

  • In the following sentence, "whatsoever" has been interrupted with "man":
    He shall be punished, what man soever offendeth.

  • In the following passage, "heinous" interrupts "howe'er":
    If on the first, how heinous e'er it be, To win thy after-love I pardon thee. —Shakespeare, Richard II 5.3.34-35

EDIT: There are further examples in wikipedia's article, among which are:

  • "Any-old-how", in which the divisibility of "anything" (as in "any old thing") is mimicked with the usually indivisible "anyhow".
  • "A-whole-nother", in which another (an+other) is reanalyzed as a+nother.
2
  • A very good, relevant treatment. Examples, however, involve compound words broken at word boundary, not monoliths actually "broken down".
    – Kris
    Dec 26 '12 at 7:51
  • Agreed with Kris. Tmesis is the act of deliberately separating a compound word at word boundaries, using them as separate constituents of a clause. That is not quite what happens in ‘a whole nother’. First off, ‘another’ is, despite its orthographic shape, still easily recognisable as determiner + adjective, so splitting it up as such is more a matter of orthography than tmesis; secondly, the split here goes against word boundaries, indicating metanalysis of the adjective. Jul 17 '13 at 10:43
3

Where I grew up (in Texas), sentences like "That's a whole nother thing" were common in informal speech—and completely intelligible to hearers of all but the youngest ages. But somehow, when called upon to write the expression, many people use this punctuation:

"I guess I just feel that's a whole 'nother piece of software I'd have to learn," Beavers said.

Since the quoted sentence was spoken in an interview, we can blame the apostrophe before the n in nother on the reporter (or perhaps on a zealous editor). But I don't see any justification for the added punctuation, which logically seems to transform "a whole nother" into "a whole another," albeit in truncated form.


FOLLOW-UP (July 21, 2018): Academic discussion of 'a whole nother'

Two discussions of "a whole nother" appear in Word Study (1954—1963[?]) [combined snippets]:

A Whole Nother

The locution "a whole nother", common from "Here's a whole nother row of beans ain't weeded" to "I have to grade a whole nother set of themes", seems to have escaped our inquiring linguists so far. The phrase may be regional, but its geographical range extends at least from Philadelphia to north central Ohio. No English word besides another separates in just this way, nor is any wod except whole ever inserted into the gap. There is no such thing as "a half norther helping". (By the way it is equally odd and generally unrecognized that at least one major meaning of such everyday words as helping, serving, slice, piece depends almost entirely on conditions within a given household, and gives lexicographers fits. I defy anyone to define "a half helping".

My best guess is that two psychological foibles in combination have engendered this unique phrase: first, the confusion caused by simultaneous conception and mental juggling of another and a whole; second, the lazy tongue that finds it easier to flatten from alveolar l to alveolar n than to withdraw to the mid-central vowel. Does this make sense or is a whole nother explanation necessary?

John T. Flautz Kent State University Kent, Ohio

A Whole Nother One

For the past two or three years I have been observing friends and acquaintances using a split construction of another in expressions like, "Well here's a whole nother day gone", or "I read a whole nother book while I was waiting". Like many such things it has probably been going on for years, but only recently have I begun noticing it.

My initial impression was that the whole nother phrase was characteristic of people with limited language sophistication, in other words, a colloquilaism used by people who had either heard it or invented it directly. Certainly they could not have seen it in writing. Later as I continued to listen for the phrase I picked it up in the utterance of graduates of Ivy League and Big Ten universities, including Ph. D.'s in English literature.

Pretty obviously this cannot be a literary construction. But there is evidently something in the structure of English that makes it virtually inevitable.

In the first place we have the familiar phenomenon of "movable n" which occurs from time to time in words regularly juxtaposed. We have an apron from a naperon, an adder from a nadder, a newt from an ewt, a nickname from an ekename, and so on (cf. Jesperson, Modern English Grammar I, 33). Therefore we do not have to be surprised when we accidentally encounter a nother in place of an other. As a matter of fact, in giving the first syllable greater emphasis, speakers of English are likely to pronounce the syllable as though it were the definite article, rhyming it with day, that is ay-nother. I have heard radio and television announcers do this repeatedly, particularly in unrehearsed speech.

In the second place we have a peculiar arrangement of modifiers. ...


*Early print instances of 'a whole nother'

In Google Books search results, instances of "a whole 'nother" go back to 1890. From Mrs. Molesworth, "The Mysterious Guide: A Story of the London Fog," in The Story of a Spring Morning, and Other Tales (1890):

"Will the fog be gone by to-morrow morning?" said Patty, disconsolately. "I don't know what we shall do if we have to be a whole 'nother day in the house and in the dark."

Patty is a young child although her exact age is not specified; the story is set in London.

From Lucy Furman, Mothering on Perilous, serialized in The Century Magazine (December 1910):

That night when Mrs. Salyer and Miss Loring and Keats and Ken and all the others were once more in bed in t' other house, and conversation had languished, and Ponto was thumping the floor with his tail again, Keats raised his head to murmur sleepily but rapturously, “Gee-oh ! a whole 'nother day at home to-morrow!"

Keats is eleven years old; the story is set in Kentucky (in fact, the name "Perilous" may be a play on Hazard, a town in the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky).

From Anne Archibald, "Angelina Interviews the Modern Cinderella," in The Theatre (March 1918):

Cinderella Miss Grace Field, for example, goes on duty at the Claridge at 11 P. M. and though closing hour on Broadway is one, still with that late start she finds that she is never able to turn in till the early morning hours. Angelina found Miss Field breakfasting around noontime, arrayed in charming Chinese coat of white silk embroidered with pink roses, just long enough to show the lace flounces of a dainty petticoat underneath. (Miss Field, by the way, lives in a marvelous reconstructed stable that once belonged to three millionaires, that is as capacious as a Fifth Avenue mansion, and that is a whole 'nother story in itself.)

As you might expect, The Theatre magazine was published in New York City.

From Life and Labor, volume 10 (1920) [combined snippets]:

"Was there a strike here?" I asked innocently.

"A year and two months," she replied almost scornfully, as if any fool ought to have known that. "Why, they used to have five hundred people working here, and now there only about sixty. They had a whole 'nother floor besides this."

I have no particulars about this article/story, including its characters and setting. Life and Labor magazine was published in Chicago, Illinois.

From an advertisement in The New Yorker, volume 49 (1925):

SHE'S A WHOLE 'NOTHER MOTHER when she slips into our deliciously romantic morning glory robe. Shades of pink, blue, green on white Dacron® cotton voile. Crystal-pleat ruffles at wrist, satin bow at neck. Button front. Washable, packable, lined for privacy.

From Plain Talk, volume 5 (1929):

Somebody had mentioned the Tank Corps. So it seemed altogether fitting and proper we should drink a standing toast to Spike Hennessy. Not that any of us knew him other than by name and reputation, but his nickname seemed appropriate to a Christmas Eve. Colonel Hennessy took a whole nother bottle. And then in walked two Y-men who used to be newspapermen themselves and were full of late gossip of the staff of the Stars and Stripes. And then we knew no more.

Plain Talk magazine was published in Washington, D.C., from October 1927 through August 1938; its tagline was "Spokesman of the forgotten man."

To sum up the results of the Google Books searches I conducted, the first confirmed instance of "a whole 'nother" (from 1890) is from England and appears in a remark by a young girl; and the second confirmed instance (from 1910) is from a story set in Kentucky and appears in a remark by an eleven-year-old boy. Three of the next four matches (from 1918 through 1929) are by adult speakers (the age of the speaker in 1920 instance from Life and Labor is ambiguous); and those three come directly from the voice of the writer or narrator, not as quotations from someone else.

Perhaps most interesting as a matter of orthography is the fact that the first five examples cited above use the logically suspect spelling "a whole 'nother" rather than the more logical "a whole nother." Evidently, the earliest writers—like many of their successors—thought it was more important to signal the connection between nother and another (as opposed, for example to some third term such as neither) than to avoid using a form that, viewed objectively, amounts to a short form of "a whole another." In any case, the Plain Talk example from 1929 is the earliest Google Books match to dispense with the apostrophe in favor of "a whole nother."

2

I don't think it's a play on words. I find myself doing it sometimes, and have reasoned it happens thus: I want to emphasise 'another' so I add 'whole' into the phrase. 'Whole', starting with a consonant, takes the article 'a', leaving over 'nother' to complete the phrase.

It happens because we still recognise 'another' as two words semantically, therefore try to insert things in between them.

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  • This is kind of like of JSBangs's answer, but much less technical. Which isn't a bad thing.
    – John Y
    Jul 7 '11 at 23:19
1

It seems like it started as a play on words: to treat 'another' like 'a nother' and then insert 'whole' between them.

I'm sure it would have been done deliberately. Word play is like that.

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  • Could this have been done purposefully, or is it unconscious?
    – Daniel
    Jul 7 '11 at 12:07
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    @drm purely FWIW -- for me, yes, it sounds like a conscious, deliberate play on word sounds. NOT accidental or mistaken, such as when idiots say brought instead of bought. So (my guess) it's deliberate play. Further, for me it has a slightly Southern-USA feel (hard to put finger on why).
    – Fattie
    Jul 7 '11 at 12:08
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    There are many speakers in various regions of the USA who officially pronounce another like a nother. To them, it's not a deliberate play on words. And really, a whole nother should be a whole other in "proper" speech. Anyway, @Joe, I can't believe you go so far as to call idiots those who mix up brought and *bought :( No one is 100% error-free all the time. You never know how close this might get to home.
    – Jimi Oke
    Jul 7 '11 at 13:07

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