Not That Big of a Deal

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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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6 thoughts on “Not That Big of a Deal”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. I live in Scotland and have noticed commentators on the American golf channel saying things like “it’s not that hard of a course” or “its not that easy of a putt.” The “of” is creeping in all over the place. This is very new and really jars to my ear!

  6. I will start by saying I have a dueling consciousness on the subject of grammar. On the one hand, I like rules and standards for systems of communication, because I think they help us universally understand one other, and having a rich system of grammar allows us to communicate in more varied and more nuanced ways than if we did away with the rules and conventions. On the other hand, if nobody ever broke from convention, human languages could never have evolved into what they are today.

    That said, this is a case where my inner prescriptive grammarian wins out over my inner descriptive grammarian. If I had to say why, I think it’s because “not that big of a deal” robs from the language rather than giving to it, by obscuring the meaning and function of “of” as a word that connects nouns to nouns. It can be used to convey a similarity or part/whole relationship. These relationships don’t compute when one of the words is an adjective and the other a noun.

    That said, I am inclined to describe the examples “much of a showing,” “less of a priority,” “more of a commitment,” and “enough of silly love songs” a little differently than you. I would say that the first word of each of those phrases *can* be (function as) an adjective (“much gratitude”), an adverb (“I don’t run much”), or a noun (“enough is enough,” “less is more”), but in these examples, they are (function as) nouns.

    However, I think the distinction you point out is instructive – adjectives of quality don’t tend to have alternate noun functions, whereas adjectives of quantity do. Maybe they always do/inherently do, standing in the place of a thing they could describe. E.g., “enough” can mean “Enough food.” Which could be why Merriam Webster online refers to the noun-like form of “enough” as a pronoun. But in that case don’t ask me why it calls “much” a noun in the analogous definition. As far as I can tell, when “much,” “enough,” “less,” and “more” act as things, they all do so the same way, so we should call each of them a “noun” or each of them a “pronoun.”

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