Too big of a deal, or too big a deal?

Reader S.A. in Orange County, California, wrote recently with an interesting question: “I often hear or read comments where an unneeded ‘of’ is inserted, such as ‘It’s not that big of a deal.’ Shouldn’t it be ‘It’s not that big a deal’? It seems odd for people to add an extra word.”

S.A. isn’t alone. We’ve all seen and heard this use of “of,” including by highly literate people. For example, the famously brainy Freakonomics Twitter account posted a while back, “How big of a negative impact can noise have?”

“Big” isn’t the only word that inspires people to add an unnecessary “of.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage offers examples using “good” and “difficult”: I don’t care how good of a shape economists say we’re in. It wouldn’t be that difficult of a shot.

I agree with S.A.: It is odd. Why do we put that “of” there? I’m sure I’ve done so myself countless times, even though the sentence usually works just fine or better without the “of.” Consider all these sentences that are correct without “of”: How big a negative impact can noise have? It’s not that big a deal. I don’t care how good a shape economists say we’re in. It wouldn’t be that difficult a shot.

Here’s another thing that’s odd about this construction: Normally, when we English speakers create idiomatic uses like this, you can trace their origins back for centuries. Not so with “intrusive of.” Merriam’s found examples going back to the 1940s, but no earlier. And it’s mostly Americans using it.
“What we have here is a fairly recent American idiom that has nearly a fixed form: ‘that’ or ‘how’ or ‘too,’ or sometimes ‘as,’ followed by an adjective, then ‘of’ and a noun,” writes Merriam’s.

I’ve long suspected that we insert an unneeded “of” because subconsciously we’re thinking of the words “much of,” as in “too much of a good thing.” But Merriam’s points out that “sort of” and “kind of” also helped lay the groundwork for unnecessary “of.”

“The current idiom is just one of a group of idioms that are characterized by the presence of ‘of’ as a link between a noun and some sort of preceding qualifier,” Merriam’s explains. “Perhaps the oldest of these is the ‘kind of a’ or ‘sort of a’ construction, which is used by Shakespeare and is even older than that.” Here's more in my recent column.

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