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I have a question that baffled me for a while now, and I'd be a happier person for an answer. Why in sentences such as

It's not that big a deal.

And

He was as nice a friend as you were.

Or

Your awesome of a father, told me that.

does the article position itself between the adjective and the noun instead of the usual start of the phrase:

I have a big house to play in.

Much obliged.

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    The third example (your awesome of A father...) is not standard English - the nearest valid construction I think of is "Your asshole of a father told me that". Jan 7, 2013 at 22:32
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    @FumbleFingers: what variety of Standard English uses asshole? Arsehole conceivably. Jan 7, 2013 at 23:04
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    @Tim: Standard working-class American English is "asshole of a father". We don't putz around when we talk dirty.
    – user21497
    Jan 7, 2013 at 23:22
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    @BillFranke lol. of course I agree, equines are often dirtier than arses. Jan 8, 2013 at 15:38

2 Answers 2

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You're conflating two different constructions. The second is required when using one noun to describe another, without converting the first to an adjective. The Irishism He's a jewel of a boy is the earliest I have found, but it's not unusual: in Walter Scott's Ivanhoe one character calls another "Dog of a Jew!"

The first is specific to words like that or so, used to qualify an adjective. ?A so big deal would never be used by a native speaker, in any context. As far as I can see, this is purely idiomatic; Shakespeare's So fair and foul a day I have not seen (Macbeth, I, 4) could be rephrased as I have never seen a day so good and bad, but not as *I have never seen a so good and bad day.

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The examples you've shown are generally verbal statements that one wouldn't write down. In your sentences, "a" is a lazy shortening of other phrases. In the first sentence, it's "of a". In the second, it's "as a". The third is already correct -- "of a" is fine (although there are other issues with that sentence ... awesome isn't a noun). You are correct that using an article there on its own would be totally incorrect English.

On a side note, if one WERE writing down this style of speech (e.g. for dialogue), you might write "He was as nice-a friend as you were." to be more explicit. The way you have it written, a native speaker would be confused.

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    Not that big of a deal? So peculiar of a phrase requires some justification. And this native speaker has never hyphenated *nice-a, and never will. Jan 7, 2013 at 23:09

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