the spread of adjective-licensed "of"

Damien Hall halldj at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Tue Jan 22 14:45:53 UTC 2008

A couple of comments on yesterday's discussion (sorry, I only get the digest, so
I can't respond to posts as they come!).

Ron Butters said:

>Both "of recent" and "how big of a" sound completely normal to me. I
>have heard both all my life & thought nothing odd about either one.
>Indeed, I have always assumed that "how big a" was just a shortened
>form of the FULL form with "of." Cf. the "to" in "help him (to)."

then, James Harbeck:

>That's very interesting to me. I definitely learned that if you say
>"an X Y," you say "how X a Y," and only say "how X of a Y" when X is
>a word like "much." I'm not sure whether it's a case of raising the
>adjective or moving the NP to the end, but there was no question for
>me that it wasn't a dropping of the "of" (which still sounds
>"uneducated" to me); it's like "how sweet the sound," which I just
>can't imagine being shortened from "how sweet of the sound."

I second James' reaction.  I don't know where he grew up, but, as you may well
know by now, I'm British (from London), and certainly had the same reaction to
Ron's post as James did.  In fact, I'd never heard 'how big of a' until I came
to the States five years ago (except, of course, in constructions with *much* /
*many*).  So 'how big of a' feels 'wrong' to me, though I was never actually
taught that it was, because it isn't a native construction in any British
dialect that I know of.  I know this is just another transient impression to
add to the pile, but, since I don't think anyone else who's talked about their
grammaticality impression of the construction is British, I thought it was
worth doing, to point out that it's not native to *all* English!

Secondly, Paul Johnston (who I think is British (?), but wasn't talking about
adjective-licensed 'of') said about "If I'd /@/ done that":

>Isn't this a reanalysis of a last-gasp example of OE participial
>prefix ge- which became schwa in Southwestern English dialects and
>came over here as a fossilized form between have and a past-
>participle in perfect constructions?  I've heard it analyzed as have,
>too.  It's more systematic in the SED material from Somerset, etc.
>though plainly,. it's a relic there, too.  I've heard it most
>frequently in things like "If I had a-done that, I'd...".

This is very interesting to me.  As I think dInIs said later in the discussion,
I'd always analysed that as a reduced 'have'.  I do it myself, and always
mentally berate myself afterwards, because that sounds wrong too.  I don't come
from any of the parts of England where "I'd a-done" is documented, but I suppose
that's not to say it couldn't be that, or couldn't have been at one stage.

Damien Hall
University of Pennsylvania

The American Dialect Society -

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