Not That Big of a Deal

By Maeve Maddox

A reader dislikes this commonly heard idiom:

This is a losing battle, I’m sure. I constantly hear – and am annoyed by – people expressing reservations about something with phrases like “It’s not that big of a deal,” or “It’s not that good of a movie” etc.  As far as I know, the “of” is superfluous; you just say “not that big a deal” or “not that good a movie.”  Adding the “of” seems unnecessary and grating to me. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this point.

The reader is correct in feeling that the “of” in “not that big of a deal” is superfluous. As one of the writers at The Grammarphobia blog points out, “An extra word can be justified if it serves an emphatic or supportive purpose, as in “first time ever” or “three different times.”

Adding of to “not that big a deal” and “not that good a movie” serves no emphatic or supportive purpose. Nevertheless, “big of a deal” is commonly heard in spoken English and, judging by the Ngram Viewer, seems to be creeping into print. The first year the phrase “big of a deal” occurs on the Ngram Viewer is 1945. It doesn’t make much of a showing in print until the 1980s, when it shoots upward.

The usage may have originated by analogy with the standard construction in which a noun is described by another noun (noun + “of a” + noun):

I have a whale of a tale to tell you, Lads.

San Andreas is a disaster of a movie.

My girlfriend has been dating a loser of a boyfriend.

The dog has made a hell of a mess in the garage.

The pattern adjective + “of a” + noun is also standard—some of the time. For example, some adjectives of quantity are used in this way:

One effect of this mechanism is to make it extremely difficult for third party or independent candidates ever to make much of a showing in the Electoral College.

But for many researchers, having equal numbers of women and men in the scientific ranks is less of a priority than having a system that is fair and furthers science itself. 

That’s more of a commitment than many emerging market investors want to make.

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.

Big and good are adjectives of quality. “It wasn’t that good of a supper” is all right as dialect, but it’s nonstandard.

The “big of a deal” construction may have migrated from dialect to the ranks of colloquialism, but it still has no place in written English, other than in dialogue or direct quotation.

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4 Responses to “Not That Big of a Deal”

  • R. E. Hunter (@REHunter_Writer)

    It’s interesting that you find that usage took off in the ’80s. I was raised using this construction in Atlantic Canada, so it’s been the norm there since at least the ’60s (you did mention dialect, but without any further clarification). It was around the ’80s that I realized the ‘of’ was extraneous and made a determined effort to stop using it.

  • CJ Flynn

    You might also be missing a tangentially opposite point. The term has turned into “Not to bigga..” slurring that hurts my ears. I slide an ‘of’ or ‘that’ or similar words into colloquialisms just to slow things down a mite.

  • Agua Caliente

    I think you could make a case for the “of” in “not that big of a deal” lending emphasis, support, or just plain logic, depending on context.

    “Not that big a deal” could conceivably refer to a small business transaction, whereas “not that big of a deal” is more figurative and may reflect the speaker’s feeling about that same transaction. In that case, the phrase is almost idiomatic and not susceptible to strict criticism. I’m not trying to be disingenuous; I really do see shades of meaning here.

  • Agua Caliente

    I meant to include that seeing “I have a whale of a tale to tell you, Lads” here was a good moment for me. The Kirk Douglas rendition of this in the movie version of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is priceless!

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