so few of a words

Reported (from memory) by Jon Lighter on ADS-L on the 2nd, from historian Douglas Brinkley on CNN:

(1) It’s amazing how much Lincoln could say in so few of a words.

I haven’t found the quote on-line and don’t know if it’s been altered in the transcript. So few of a words could just be a speech error, but it could be the result of a series of extensions and innovations in the syntax of modification in English.

This discussion will unavoidably get pretty technical; read with care.

(A previous discussion on this blog, also from a quote found by Jon Lighter, is “Innovative EDM”, about

(2) not that good a looking guys ‘guys who are not that good-looking’

Eliminating the split of good-looking (but treating the a as a mere component of the construction, rather than as a semantically contributory indefinite article) gives things like

(2′) not that handsome a guys (or (2″) not that handsome of a guys)

More on these below.)

Background: EDM and ODM. Exceptional Degree Marking (EDM) is a two-part construction of standard English with an unusual organization of the elements of a NP. It is triggered by a small number of degree (Deg) modifiers.

EDM:  [ 1: how/so/…  2: big ] [ 3: a  4: dog ]  (how big a dog but *how big dogs)

where 1 is a Deg modifier of 2 (and also the trigger for EDM); 2 is an Adj modifier of 4; 3 is the indefinite article; 4 is a Nsg

This is in contrast to Ordinary Degree Modification (ODM), where the same four elements are arranged in ordinary fashion, with modifiers adjacent to and preceding what they modify:

ODM:  3: [ [ 1: very/pretty/…  2: big ]  4: dog ]  (a very big dog; compare (somevery big dogs

(In ODM, there is no number restriction on 4.)

Syntactically, an EDM NP is headless; it has a modifier constituent (Deg Adj) juxtaposed with a predicative constituent (a Nsg). Nothing marks the function of the predicative constituent.

+of EDM. An alternative version of EDM has been around for more than half a century. From a 12/2/10 posting of mine:

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 dealnot much of a bargainmy 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.

The effect of +of EDM is to provide an explicit marker of the subordinate status of the predicative constituent in EDM.

Extending EDM. In standard English, EDM suffers from the restriction to Nsg. This exchange is fine:

A: I saw a big dog on my porch.  B: How big (of) a dog did you see?

but this one is non-standard:

A: I saw big dogs on my porch.  B: How big (of) dogs did you see?

It’s natural to eliiminate the restriction in expressive capacity by extending EDM to Npl, and a number of speakers have done this.

Reanalyzing EDM. So far, I’ve treated the a of EDM as, in fact the indefinite article, so that the predicative constituent [ a Nsg ] is semantically indefinite. But, as I suggested earlier, it’s possible to see the a as merely a component of the (second part of the) EDM construction, a reanalysis that would allow for it to combine with Npl (as well as Nsg), and allowing things like

not that handsome (of) a guys

which is (2′) above. And, similarly,

how/so… big (of) a dogs

(At this point, given the frequency of +of EDM, it’s possible that some speakers have come to treat of a as a complex marker of the predicative constituent in EDM.

Modifiers with Npl. The next complication concerns modifiers that select for Npl rather than Nsg or allowing both numbers, in particular quantificational modifiers: two, many, few (vs. one, which selects for Nsg). Then, corresponding to ODM few words, we get

-of EDM extended to Npl: so few words. With a as constructional mark: so few a words.

+of EDM extended to Npl: so few of words. With a as constructional mark: so few of a words.

Which brings us to (1), which has so few of a words.

That is, (1) could be the end of a chain of extensions and reanalyses, and not just a speech error.

(Note: the only part of this chain of extensions and reanalyses that I’m claiming is arguably standard is +of EDM, as I noted above. The rest of it is non-standard, but the pieces do seem to be reasonably well-attested; speakers are astonishingly inventive.)

2 Responses to “so few of a words”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Later in the day: JL has unearthed a transcript,, but it suggests that the editor didn’t understand the syntax of in so few words:

    “[Mario Cuomo] worked on books on Abraham Lincoln and was amazed that Lincoln could say so much in the Gettysburg address or emancipation proclamation and so few words.”

  2. Ben Zimmer Says:

    I found the clip in the TV News Archive on (a terrific resource):

    Here’s how I would transcribe it:

    “He worked on books on Abraham Lincoln and was always very amazed that Lincoln could say so much, in the Gettysburg Address or Emancipation Proclamation, in so few of words.”

    Definitely hearing it as “so few of words,” not “so few of a words.”

    [archiveorg CNNW_20150102_150000_CNN_Newsroom_With_Carol_Costello?start=1140&end=1200 width=400 height=300 frameborder=0 webkitallowfullscreen=true mozallowfullscreen=true]

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