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Buck's English: How good a grammarian are you?

Buck’s English: How good a grammarian are you?
By Gene Owens Published: June 8, 2014

Judy Sing, of Macomb, has been wondering about the common habit of sneaking “of a” between an adjective and its noun, as in “Sherman Grant is not that good of a driver.”

It depends on whom you ask, Judy. Most people in Sagebrush County will vouch for Sherman’s ineptitude as a driver, but many will point out that it’s hard to be a Dale Jr. when you’re driving a Yugo.

The question is whether it’s proper to say “that good of a driver.”

Buck is more inclined to say “that good a driver,” which is what Judy would say. One could also say “that good AS a driver.” But the debate is still going over the practice of using “of” in the expression.

“What we have here is a fairly recent American idiom,” observes Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. An idiom is an expression that doesn’t make much sense literally but has been imbued with a meaning of its own in popular usage.

“That big of ...” and similar expressions have not quite achieved a status exalted enough to give it a place in literary writing. Webster’s says it’s good enough to be used without reproof in spoken English, but “You will not want to use it much in writing, except of a personal kind.” So, maybe the safest way of putting it is “Sherman Grant’s driving is not that good.”

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