July 03, 2005

Not that adjective of (a) noun

Matt Hutson asked via email:

Is the following sentence grammatically correct?

"It doesn't seem like that painful of work for $50/hour."

(Context: I was describing to my sister a freelance opportunity, and this was her reply.)

We all hate wishy-washy answers ("well, that depends on what you mean by 'grammatically correct'...), so I'm happy to be able to tell Matt that I estimate his sister's sentence to be 424.7 times less grammatically correct than "It doesn't see like that painful of a job for $50/hour " is. Since "that painful of a job" is already a construction limited to informal registers, it's not surprising that the sentence triggered enough of a WTF reaction in Matt to motivate him to ask about it.

I'll say a bit about the grammatical structures involved, and then give the details of my calculation.

There's a general pattern we could describe as

"not that ADJECTIVE of a NOUN"

meaning roughly

"not such an ADJECTIVE NOUN"


It wasn't that big of a story. (~ "It wasn't such a big story")
It wasn't that big of a deal. (~ "It wasn't such a big deal.")
It wasn't that strong of a fragrance. (~ "It wasn't such a strong fragrance.")
It wasn't that bad of a layout.
It wasn't that great of a movie.
It wasn't that easy of a walk back.
It wasn't that hard of a change for me.

Now, all of these examples involve head nouns with an indefinite article. Things like "it wasn't that big of the story" feel to me like they aren't English, and don't seem to occur on the web. Also, the cited examples have singular nouns; you can find plural examples on the web, e.g.

I am a young boy who can not pull that big of jobs.

but they seem to be rather rare and feel rather odd, at least to me.

Finally, all the examples I've given are count nouns. Again, you can find mass noun examples on the web:

You're not happy, and from looking at you, I can tell you aren't used to that strong of wine.
I didn't know you have that warm of weather out there.
You will usually not use an anchor buoy system, because you are not in that deep of water.

but again they seem to me to be rarer and odder. And the thing about Matt's sister's sentence is that work is a mass noun.

To provide empirical support for my intuition that this construction is odder with mass nouns, I'd have to do a psycholinguistic experiment. But I can show that it's rarer by doing some web searches.

painful ___
that painful of (a) ___
hard ___
that hard of (a) ___

Looking for "that painful of work" brings no joy -- Matt's sister is blazing new linguistic trails here.

However, hard is much commoner with both job and work than painful is, and as a result we can actually see a reasonable number of (Google) counts for both "that hard of a job" and "that hard of work". Furthermore, we can look at the relative frequency of "hard job" compared to "that hard of a job"

154000/3900 = 39.5/1

and of "hard work" compared to "that hard of work"

13500000/805 = 16,770/1

Thus "that hard of work" is

(13500000/805)/(154000/3900) = 424.7 times less common.

Now, this is a simple-minded model with slipshop parameter estimation. To make this into a serious example of Google psycholinguistics, we'd need to look at many adjective-noun combinations, and and consider a wider range of functional forms for the model. Still, I'm fairly confident that we'd learn that the "[not] that ADJECTIVE of (a) NOUN" construction is a lot rarer with mass nouns than with count nouns.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 3, 2005 03:36 PM