+of EDM in the comics

Today’s Zippy:

The point of linguistic interest here is the exceptional degree modification (EDM) with of (+of) in the boldfaced portion of Zippy’s

I haven’t seen as good of an acting job since Gaga announced for mayor of Chicago.

These days, this particular configuration is not even slightly remarkable, though some usage critics, and many peevers-in-the-street, are driven wild by it. The rise of +of EDM as an alternative to the older -of EDM, followed by the replacement of the -of variant by the +of variant (taken to completion by many younger American speakers), is a syntactic change that’s happened in my lifetime.

Some brief notes on these developments follow.

In degree modification in general, an adjective (Adj) takes a preceding degree modifier (Deg), with the combination functioning as an AdjP: very big, too big. The AdjP can serve as a predicative (“This dog is very/too big”) or as a prenominal modifier, in which case the Deg modifiers split into two types (one exemplified by very, one by too), according to the syntax for their AdjP:

1. ordinary degree modification (ODM, or type O), in which the AdjP combines with a following N head, in particular a singular count head (very big dog); determiners, if any, precede this combination: a very big dog

2. exceptional (or extraordinary) degree marking (EDM, or type X), in which the AdjP combines with a following singular count  nominal with the determiner a(n): too big a dog

The history of EDM is an interesting topic in its own right, as are the details about which Deg expressions allow or require EDM and about the semantics and pramatics of EDM modification and about sociolinguistic variation on these points, and there is now a fair amount of literature on these matters, but I’ll put all that aside here.

One important matter, however, is that EDM is an oddball construction, with only a few parallels elsewhere in modern English, some of them distinctly formal in style — things like such a (“Kim is such an idiot”) and many a (“Many a linguist has pondered these problems”) and what a (“What an/ idiot Kim is!”). That means that there’s internal pressure to re-shape EDM into something with wider parallels in the language.

And indeed, starting with attestations in the early 1940s, but probably occurring in speech earlier than that, we see the (default) linking preposition of used to assimilate EDM to N of a(n) N patterns like a hell of a deal, not much of a bargain, my idiot of a brother: voilà, too big of a dog. This I call +of EDM, contrasted with the -of EDM of too big a dog.

It spread fast, appearing in the pages of the New York Times (in quoted conversation) in the 1970s, and disparaged by prescriptivists from 1980 on (as soon as it began appearing in the speech, and then the writing, of “people who ought to know better”). The wave was irrestistible, so that the construction went from being nonstandard to being standard but informal spoken American English (it seems not to have penetrated beyond the U.S., and Canada, but just wait!) to being standard American English, period, hard though that is for some older speakers to accept.

The +of EDM variant can now be found in serious writing in the NYT, in the copy of reporters on National Public Radio, in the writing of linguists posting to ADS-L, and so on, as well as in more conversational settings. Some speakers still reserve +of EDM for more informal contexts and -of EDM for formal written contexts. But for others (like most of my Stanford students) the shift to +of EDM is essentially complete; these speakers still recognize and understand -of EDM when they encounter it, but they don’t produce it themselves, in speech or in writing. For these people, the ship of change has not only sailed; it’s reached the other shore.

It’s fascinating to collect attitudes about the variant from such people. Some characterize -of EDM to me as “British” or “18th-century” or the like. On ADS-L in 2007, Joe Salmons reported:

Everybody I’ve asked says it’s grammatical, but some people seem to think it’s how other people talk: One man wondered if it was more likely to be female than male speech, but no woman I’ve asked shares that view. A Canadian said it sounded American, and so on. One Wisconsinite did say that she was corrected when she used it in California — to ‘so big OF a house’.

That’s a complete reversal of values, with the once-standard construction now viewed as non-standard, as “incorrect”. Several of my informants echoed this view, one even suggesting that -of EDM might be a recent development, originating from an inadvertent error, a truncation of the “correct” +of EDM variant!

In any case, Zippy’s riding the wave of +of EDM.

6 Responses to “+of EDM in the comics”

  1. Rick Sprague Says:

    Fascinating! I had no idea it had become prominent. I’ll have to make an effort to listen for it, and an even bigger effort to adopt it myself, since to me it has until now been not only conversational-only, but somewhat rustic.

  2. Rick Sprague Says:

    As I was thinking about this, I caught myself mentally saying “the obsolete programming language of COBOL” for “the obsolete programming language COBOL”. The latter is obviously an appositive construction. Would you consider the former a “+of appositive”, or is it something else? Does it seem nonstandard to you?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Both are appositive/equative in meaning and both are, so far as I can tell, standard. If you’re an Omit Needless fanatic, then of course the of must go, and in fact in this case I’d prefer the of-less variant myself. (In some other cases an of would be downright awkward.) I suspect this is in my pleonasm files, though I haven’t yet found it; stuff with of is really hard to search for.

  3. +of EDM on the march « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Background fact 2, on -of vs. +of EDM. This is the pattern for EDM in conservative standard English, call it -of EDM, but there’s a competing construction with the preposition of marking the a + N constituent: +of EDM, as in too big of a dog. There’s an extensive literature on the history and the stylistic and sociolinguistic characteristics of +of EDM (see remarks here). […]

  4. Ben Cohen « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] marking), an alternative to the older -of EDM (not … that nice a body). Compact discussion here, where I note that The wave [of +of EDM] was irrestistible, so that the construction went from […]

  5. Innovative EDM « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] For some time, speakers of English have been angling to get around these two surprises by regularizing things. In the first case, they’ve come up with +of EDM instead of the older standard -of EDM: too big of a dog: These days, this particular configuration is not even slightly remarkable, though some usage critics, and many peevers-in-the-street, are driven wild by it. The rise of +of EDM as an alternative to the older -of EDM, followed by the replacement of the -of variant by the +of variant (taken to completion by many younger American speakers), is a syntactic change that’s happened in my lifetime. (link) […]

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