ADJ (of) a -- whe re's the plural?

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sun Apr 18 00:05:03 UTC 2004

On Apr 16, 2004, at 8:52 PM, Laurence Horn wrote:

> At 11:22 PM -0400 4/16/04, Steve Boatti wrote:
>> In a message dated 4/16/04 9:28:53 PM, laurence.horn at YALE.EDU writes:
>>>  Actually, you can *say* "They're [tu:] good shooters", but only for
>>>  "two", not "too".
>> Perhaps someone can explain to me, a non-linguist, just why you can't
>> say
>> "they're too good shooters."
> I don't think being a linguist or not enters into it.  If you can say
> it, you can say it, and I can't explain why you can't.
>> It is perfectly grammatical and doesn't sound
>> strange to me at all.
> Hmm.  Looks like there's a "dialect split" here.


i might have posted on this before, but here's the quick summary...

the most frequent, and also the standard, system has a gap for
"exceptional" degree modifiers like that/so/how:

  that big a bush          *that big bushes   *that big shrubbery 'shrubbery
that big'

there are postnominal alternatives for all three: a bush that big,
bushes that big, etc. (and full relative clause versions: bushes that
are that big, etc.).

the wh-word "how" is an exceptional degree modifier, but (for separate
reasons) none of the postnominal versions are available: *A bush (that
is) how big did you see?  *Bushes (that are) how big did you see? etc.
for count plural (and mass) nouns, the interrogative gap can be filled
by a predicative construction -- How big were the bushes that you saw?
-- but you might suppose that there is some pressure to extend the
ordinary pattern, to give: How big bushes did you see?

in any case, some people *have* extended the ordinary pattern, to give
things like: that big bushes.  some serious corpus and informant work
is needed to see just what the schemes of extensions are.

in addition, some speakers with "of"  in the exceptional pattern ("that
big of a dog" rather than "that big a dog") extend it to the count
plural (and mass) cases: that big of bushes.  a few speakers even treat
the "a" of the exceptional pattern as a fixed piece: that big of a

like i said, there's a lot of corpus and informant work to be done here.

arnold (zwicky at

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