Of (was: (of) a: where's the plural?)

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Apr 19 00:15:36 UTC 2004

On Apr 18, 2004, at 11:31 AM, Damien Hall wrote:

> On Apr 17, 2004, at 1:54 PM, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>> ...To me, there is no version without the "of". "He's too good a
>> shooter" comes from "good of a" where the "of" is reduced to a schwa
>> and phonetically combines with the article.
> And Arnold Zwicky replied:
> this is not the historical sequence.  the "of"-less version is older.
> which is not to say that you can't have reanalyzed things as the
> reverse.
> ===============
> I say:
> For me, a speaker of Standard Southern British English, 'too good of
> a' is
> definitely non-standard.  I wouldn't swear it was never heard in
> Britain, but
> it's certainly not part of my dialect...

i was assuming that everyone understood that the version with "of" is
non-standard.  MWDEU (1989) describes it (in an entry on _of a_) as "a
fairly recent American idiom".

>   In fact, I think that prescriptivists
> in schools and the like would actually frown on it, maybe because, as
> someone
> else (sorry I don't have the quote by me at the moment) has remarked,
> the 'of'
> adds nothing.

well, "of" frequently adds nothing, but is nevertheless required (or
allowed) in particular constructions.  for quantity modifiers with
plural nouns, compare:
        OF disallowed: a dozen/hundred (*of) boxes
        variable OF: a couple (of) boxes
        OF required: a lot/number *(of) boxes

and consider that a construction *very* similar to the exceptional
degree modifier construction requires an "of":
        Kim is not much *(of) a linguist.
        How much *(of) a linguist is Kim?

> ..."They're too good of shooters" / "They're too good a shooters" just
> sounded
> wrong to me, but I'm not sure how I *would* render the plural:
> "They're too
> good shooters" would be wrong in writing too...

in standard english, there's no way to express the plural *using (some
version of) this construction*.  as i pointed out in another posting,
you have to shift to a different construction, in this case: They shoot
too well, They're too good at shooting, They're too good as shooters,

the rest of damien hall's posting is about confounding characteristics
of a particular example.  but the original observations were about how
AdjPs of the form
        Deg-exc Adj
(where Deg-exc  is one of: too, that, this, so, as, how,...) combine
with head Ns (actually, N-bars), *in general*.  in standard english,
this construction is possible only if the head N is count singular, and
then it must have the indefinite article (and can have no other

arnold (zwicky at csli.stanford.edu)

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