Innovative EDM

Over on ADS-L, Jon Lighter reported an occurrence, in fluent speech, of the definitely non-standard:

not that good a looking guys ‘guys who are not that good-looking’

There are three notable features here: the PL guys with not that Adj (compare not that good-looking guys ‘guys who are not that good-looking’, which is also non-standard); the indefinite article a in combination with the PL (compare not that good-looking a guys, which is even more peculiar than not that good-looking guys); and the splitting of the compound Adj good-looking by the indefinite article.

You might think that Lighter’s example was just a complex speech error, and that’s possible. But the example wasn’t corrected, and all three of the notable features are attested, separately, in other examples.

To explain all this, I’ll have to provide some background.

First, Ordinary Degree Marking (ODM) and Exceptional Degree Marking (EDM):

Ordinarily a degree modifier, like very, combines with an Adj head, like happy, to yield an expression with pretty much the distribution of the Adj on its own: you can think of very happy as an “expansion” of happy. This is ODM.

But a few degree modifiers [too, how, that, and some others] work differently: they combine with a nominal expression with the indefinite article a(n), to yield a full NP: too/how big a dog. The result is a contrast between ODM a very big dog and EDM too big a dog. (link)

The structure of EDM NPs — AdjP in combination with something that looks like a NP rather than a N — is surprising; parallel constructions involve Dets rather than AdjPs (such an idiot, what an idiot, etc.), or have a NP complement marked by of rather than an unmarked NP complement (how much of an idiot, not much of a linguist, that idiot of an assistant, etc.).

A crucial fact: in standard English, EDM is used only with SG C nouns (which I’ll refer to as I nouns, I standing for individuated); PL and M nouns require some paraphrase in place of things like *how big bushes and *how big shrubbery (vs. how big a bush): How big were the bushes you bought?, instead of *How big bushes did you buy? (and bushes that big instead of *that big bushes). This too is surprising, and the restriction seems not to be semantically motivated.

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)

(More details in the posting linked to here.)

In the second case, there are a number of possible schemes for extending EDM to PL and M nouns. Here I’ll look at PLs. Given the model

(0) Deg Adj a I (that handsome a guy)

you can posit

(1) Deg Adj PL (that handsome guys)

or you can take the a in (0) to be just a mark of the construction and not actually the indefinite article, and so posit

(2) Deg Adj a PL (that handsome a guys)

or can you start from the +of EDM variant

(0′) Deg Adj of a I (that handsome of a guy)

and posit one of the following:

(1′) Deg Adj of PL (that handsome of guys)

(2′) Deg Adj of a PL (that handsome of a guys)

Examples of form (1) can be found, but they’re hard to search for. Here’s one:

What about people who take on far too big mortgages that they have no chance to repay until they are well into their 50’s (if ever). (link)

Examples with a (as in (2) and (2′)) and of (as in (1′) and (2′) are also attested, though not in large numbers. For (2), here’s one posted by Larry Horn on ADS-L on 4/16/04:

Mike Francesa of WFAN sports talk radio uttered this sentence during his show before the championship game of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament.  The reference is to UConn basketball players Ben Gordon and Rashad Anderson.

“You can’t leave Gordon and Anderson alone–they’re too good a shooters.”

Lighter’s example is of this form, but with the added complication of a splitting up good-looking.

Also back in 2004, Neal Whitman collected some examples of form (1′), for instance:

Too small of rooms for the price!! (link)

and here’s one of mine:

too big a mortgages (Chris Farrell, APM’s Marketplace Money, 4/27/08)

In the recent ADS-L discussion of Lighter’s example, Wilson Gray suggested an alternative of form (1′):

not that good-looking of guys

Finally, form (2′):

… there were too harsh of a interrogation techniques going on… (Jackie Northam, NPR’s Saturday Morning Edition, 6/4/05)

To sum up: EDM with PL head nouns is non-standard, but attested; and some of the attestations (like Lighter’s example) have a in them.

That leaves split good-looking. This turns out to be well-attested (though of course non-standard) with I heads in EDM:

It [is] as good a looking mouthpiece as you will find anywhere, and it plays even better than it looks! (link)

Garrett Scott (6-foot-4, 296-pound junior) is as good a looking offensive lineman as I’ve been around here. (link)

Probably as good a looking chick [as] you will find on a dating website (link)

you would still have to hunt or buy the graphics needed to create as good a looking sales page the the FlexSqueeze Theme allows you to [“the the” is probably an anticipatory error for “as the”, or non-standard “that the”] (link)

(I exclude quotations from the song “Mambo Italiano” with good-a mimicking an Italian accent in English: “Kid you good-a looking but …”)

So all three of the notable features of Lighter’s example — EDM with a PL head, a with a PL head, and a splitting up good-looking — turn out to be separately attested in (non-standard) English. The combination of them is, to be sure, remarkable and (on first hearing) baffling.

One Response to “Innovative EDM”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Neal Whitman on ADS-L:

    Sought and found in the wild, after discussion of “that good a looking man”:

    Its not that fast an acting solution… it takes a hundred miles or so to burn it out. (link)

    This was the only Google hit for “that fast an acting”. Later, I’ll look for more “that|how|too” + [gradable adjective] + “a(n)” + [present participle that forms compound with gradable adjective].

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