Pleonastic indefinite article

Caught recently in a Bowflex commercial, a reference to “guys a half my age”:

I’m having pickup [basketball] games with guys a half my age.

You can google up a small number of examples for a half POSS age, with an apparently pleonastic indefinite article, and a small number for a half of POSS age. They are similar to an apparently pleonastic construction that has caught the attention of usage critics at least since 1917: a half a.

I’ll start with a half a. Here’s what MWDEU says (p. 492):

Handbooks going back as far as MacCracken & Sandison 1917 [Manual of Good English] say that both half a (or an) and a half are all right, but a half a is redundant.  A few of the more recent ones, like Scott Foresman 1981 [Clark et al., Language: Structure and Use], notice that the a half a construction seems to be mostly a spoken usage.  This is our opinion, too, for we have little evidence of its use in print.  It would seem to be most likely to occur with fixed phrases like half an hour or half a dollar, which are thought of as units and which are frequently found hyphenated in print.

There’s the pleonasm charge (under the label “redundancy” — not just using more words than are necessary, but actually saying the same thing twice).

There are, according to MWDEU, three constructions here, two of which are entirely standard, one of which is problematic (if not non-standard, then at least colloquial, conversational, informal):

O[UTSIDE]: a half dollar
I[NSIDE]: half a dollar
D[OUBLE]: a half a dollar

(In fact, there are two more, with partitive of:

I-Part: half of a dollar
D-Part: a half of a dollar )

There are subtle semantic differences between O and I, at least with certain head nouns. For me,

I have a half dollar in my pocket.

conveys only that I have a 50-cent coin in my pocket, while

I have half a dollar in my pocket.

conveys only that I have coins whose values add up to 50 cents in my pocket (or that I have one part of a dollar bill cut in half, which can also be conveyed by the two partitive versions).

Actually, on alternate Tuesdays I think that D is subtly different from O and I, but then for me D examples like “I have a half a dollar in my pocket” and “I’ll see you in a half an hour” are stylistically and semantically neutral, while both O and I strike me as marked in some way. (I realize that my judgments are not shared bt many people, but still I shrink from labeling the D variant as non-standard just because it offends Omit Needless Words.)

Some observations: the frequencies of O, I, and D vary considerably according to the particular head noun involved, but in raw ghits, D seems always to be substantial. When I collected raw counts in 2007, for the head noun hour, O and I were close, but D wasn’t far behind, while for the head noun dollar, D beat out I by a good bit, and O exceeded them both by a considerable margin.

These are very crude measures, packed with interfering factors, and the situation is clearly different for different head nouns, and the situation is probably different in different (social and discourse) contexts. I don’t pretend to understand the envelope of variation and am only offering some suggestive observations.

Now, the question of where the D variants come from. Almost everyone I’ve talked to about these variants is sure that they are “blends” of some kind, that the D variants a half a at least originated historically as a combination of the O and I variants, with the first indefinite article contributed by O, the second by I. This could happen in the heat of the moment, I suppose, but I doubt that such an inadvertent blend is the source of D.

Instead, I propose that the D variant is indeed a combination, but of constructions rather than specific expressions — a combination in the same sense that the perfect progressive (as in have been singing) is a combination of the perfect and the progressive constructions — and propose that the O variant plays no role in the matter.

Look at the way fraction nouns used as determiners — half is one such — work in English. The large pattern is for such a fraction noun to combine with a NP in a partitive phrase and to require a determiner of its own (with the indefinite article as the default). With an indefinite head NP, the pattern is:

a FRACTION of a N

that is,

(1) a third/quarter /tenth/… of an hour [variant D-Part]

The initial article is obligatory (except in informal styles, in which articles can be omitted when they can be supplied from context):

(2) *third/quarter/tenth/… of an hour

The partitive of is also obligatory:

(3) *a third/quarter/tenth/… an hour

The fraction noun half allows for more possibilities than your typical fraction noun. The D-Part pattern in (1) is possible:

(1′) a half of an hour

1 person wants to walk for a half of an hour daily (link)

and is in fact very frequent. (Notice that if a half an hour is pleonastic, so is (1′).)

But so is the pattern in (2):

(2′) half of an hour [variant I-Part]

I haven’t even eaten breakfast yet, that’s in half of an hour and I’m going to eat … (link)

Half allows for still another possibility: it can combine with a plain (rather than partitive-marked) NP:

(4) half an hour [variant I]

as an alternative to (2′) half of an hour; similarly, half the time (~ half of the time). Half joins a few other determiners (both, all) in occurring in a construction with a plain NP and in a construction with a partitive NP (both/all the answers ~ both/all of the answers).

And half, as I noted above, occurs in a construction with a preceding determiner (as in (1′)) and in a construction with no preceding determiner (as in (2′)).

For half, then, there are two independent constructional choices: plain or partitive NP, overt or zero determiner. That gives four combinations:

zero Det, plain NP: half an hour [the I variant]
zero Det, partitive NP: half of an hour [the I-Part variant]
overt Det, plain NP: a half an hour [the D variant]
overt Det, partitive NP: a half of an hour [the D-Part variant]

That is, the D variant is predicted by the rest of the system of NP syntax in English. And not only the D variant, which happens to have the indefinite article in two Det slots (so that it looks “redundant”), but also a number of other overt-Det + plain-NP examples with different determiners in the two slots, for instance:

Where I teach, I couldn’t imagine the kindergarteners to go for a full day (without a nap time or break) some of them can’t make it for the half a day. (link)

His teachers are only there for a half the day. (link)

The O variant (as in a half hour) plays no role in this story. In fact, it has yet another determiner construction of English, in which Det combines not with a (full) NP (whether plain or partitive-marked), but with a constituent sometimes labeled Nom, which can be tricky to distinguish from NP, though matters are clear when the N is a singular count noun. Most determiners in English work this way: each day, every hour, one time,… Half belongs in this class, but has the additional wrinkle of allowing a determiner of its own.

[Footnote: the fraction-noun quarter shares some of the properties of half; note: a quarter hour (but not quarter an hour ‘a quarter of an hour’). You can even google up a few examples of the D variant a quarter an hour ‘a quarter of an hour’, but they seem to come mostly from non-native speakers.]

Finally, back to Bowflex and a half (of) POSS age. If you’ve read this far, you’ll see that these examples are cases of overt-Det + NP (plain or partitive) in which the NP has a possessive determiner — that is, cases of D and D-Part. Some examples:

[from a comment] AJ is a half my age and thinks he knows everything. He doesn’t know jackshit about Europe where I live. (link)

In the dry language of humanitarian reports, it’s called a “coping strategy”; and it would be hard work for a man a half his age. (link)

[from a comment] … although she is getting on in years she has the stamina and drive of someone a half her age. (link)

“UCU is almost a half of my age. My wife spent 27 years working there as a nurse,” he said. (link)

(There are, of course, plenty of examples of half (of) my age and the like, with zero Det.)

I doubt that the examples are limited to NPs with age as their head; I’d expect that nouns like size, weight, height, strength, and so on are also available, though I haven’t yet unearthed such examples.

3 Responses to “Pleonastic indefinite article”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    To my ears, “a half hour” sounds American; I would always use “half an hour” unless it was attributive, as in “a half-hour wait”. Google shows “a half hour” outscoring “half an hour” 10:1 in .edu but only 4:1 in .ac.uk

    I can’t tell whether I would wait for “quarter of an hour” or “a quarter of an hour”. Maybe the first is more colloquial. I wouldn’t say “a quarter hour”; objectively it seems more succint, but subjectively it sounds awkward to my idiolect. Google shows .ac.uk/ .edu hits:
    “a quarter hour”: 74 / 66,100
    “a quarter of an hour”: 37,800 / 178,000
    “quarter of an hour”: 56,200 / 338,000

  2. Ellen K. Says:

    While the examples later in the thread are fine, for me the original example, “guys a half my age” just doesn’t work, unless “a” was actually “of” without the v sound.

  3. WOO: The War On Of « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] The War On Of By arnoldzwicky Having posted about (1) (a) half (of) a […]

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