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Consider the sentence "She's a little crazy", taken from Disney's Aladdin. The copula verb has been attached to an adjective (the other common thing it combines with is an object), in this case the phrase "a little crazy". Since "crazy" is an adjective, "a little" is a qualifying adverbial phrase, somehow formed by combining the indefinite article with an adverb, whereas normally it combines with a noun to form a nominal phrase. (Of course "little" can be an adjective too, but I think it's an adverb here as it is in "little bit odd", where "odd" is an adjective and so "bit" and hence "little" is an adverb.)

As a follow-up, consider "It's a little bit funny", from Elton John's Your Song (lyrics by Bernie Taupin). Here "little bit" is an adverb, but so is "a little bit".

I'd be interested to understand the beyond-school-syllabus grammatical theory that makes sense of how these constructions are possible. How can "a" combine with an adverb to form an adverb? Or, if we see the structure as a (little X) instead of (a little) X, how can "a" combine with an adjective to form an adjective?

  • Are you suggesting that "she's little bit crazy" (without an article at all) should make sense logically? Or are you wondering why we don't say "she's the little bit crazy" instead? (Actually, we do say "she's the littlest bit crazy . . .") – Jason Bassford May 31 '18 at 18:14
  • "A little" is not an adverbial phrase but a complex paucal determinative. Unlike degree determinatives like "many", "few", "little" etc., it has internal structure in that it contains the indefinite article "a". "A little money", for example, is structurally quite different from "a little boy", where "little" is an adjective in modifier function – BillJ May 31 '18 at 18:34
  • @JasonBassford That's a good point. "Somewhat" would work there, whereas "little bit" doesn't. – J.G. May 31 '18 at 19:03
  • @BillJ Thanks; could you turn that into an answer that explains determinatives and in particular paucal ones? I've tried looking those up, and all I can find is that "paucal" seems to refer to number. Now you mention it, it would be interesting to know enough about determinatives to understand why it's "a little", but "the littlest". – J.G. May 31 '18 at 19:04

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