'Hard of a..' in 'Is it really that hard of a concept to grasp'

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I rarely saw sentences where an article follows after the preposition 'of,' but somehow I encountered this sentence today;

Is it really that hard of a concept to grasp?

I think 'hard of' may be a chunk, as I can understand the sentence without 'hard of' in a grammatical way. Could anyone explain the underlying grammar in this sentence?

Gwangmu Lee

Posted 2017-09-11T13:38:37.207

Reputation: 787

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Related: “that crazy of an idea” vs “that crazy idea”

– sumelic – 2017-09-11T20:34:52.380

I notice someone edited this question to add the word "that" to the example sentance.. Sammy seems to have asnwered the original question while Andrew seems to have answered the edited one. – Peter Green – 2017-09-11T21:01:51.390

I'm not sure if it's the "of a" that you are struggling with or the larger contruction. "of a" comes up often is speech. "an example of a failing", "he's a hell of a guy (helluva guy)", "birds of a feather", "small piece of a larger puzzle" – JimmyJames – 2017-09-11T21:37:58.373

Related questions from the English Language & Usage community: “How big of a problem” vs. “how big a problem”; Is the saying “It's not that big of a deal” incorrect?

– Miles – 2017-09-12T03:35:55.690

Possible duplicate of Too big of a sofa or adjective of a noun constuction

– sammy gerbil – 2017-09-12T11:57:15.583

Answers

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"That X (of) a Y" is a kind of idiomatic expression used to emphasize that the speaker thinks the subject is actually not a very X example of a Y.

It is often used in rhetorical questions, like your example, or these:

Is peace on Earth really that bizarre of a notion that we can't someday achieve it?

Is it that steep of a mountain that no one can climb it?

Or in a statement:

Computer programming is not that difficult of a subject.

The "of" is, I think, optional.

It's not that hard a concept to grasp.

[Edit] As Aaron Rotenberg points out in his comment, it is possible to use this expression in a positive context as well, although I would expect it as a response to someone who first used it as a negative:

A: Is quantum field theory really that hard of a subject?
B: Yes, it really is that hard of a subject!

Andrew

Posted 2017-09-11T13:38:37.207

Reputation: 85 521

9It is entirely possible to use this idiom in a positive context: "Yes, quantum field theory really is that difficult of a subject." – Aaron Rotenberg – 2017-09-12T01:10:40.780

5@AaronRotenberg but still incorrect, the correct Englsh form would be "Yes, quantum field theory really is that difficult a subject." – Mick – 2017-09-12T02:28:14.700

7@Mick It's almost like idioms don't always make literal or grammatical sense. – Fund Monica's Lawsuit – 2017-09-12T04:16:11.427

2@QPaysTaxes: I think the point is that, in many parts of the English-speaking world, the "of" is not idiomatic and is regarded as ungrammatical - certainly where I come from (southern UK) we don't say that (we'd say "it's not that big a deal" rather than "*it's not that big of a deal"). – psmears – 2017-09-12T08:15:02.600

I think 'of' here is just wrong, like when someone says "you should of cleaned the car" instead of have. – bye – 2017-09-12T09:45:49.253

@DrEval Those aren't even remotely close to being comparable meanings of "of" in this context. One is the clear misuse of a word when another one is correct, while this is more a case of inserting an additional word into an expression. It's technically redundant, but not inherently incorrect. – John Clifford – 2017-09-12T12:10:26.100

@psmears ...and? I don't see how that contradicts what I said. They're idioms; those are regional things, and [insert first comment here]. – Fund Monica's Lawsuit – 2017-09-12T12:55:21.200

1@QPaysTaxes: No, not all idioms are regional things, not at all. There are plenty of idioms that form part of standard English. Mick was pointing out that this one isn't standard (which is a very useful fact for learners of English); you seemed to be objecting to that. – psmears – 2017-09-12T13:23:23.300

The idiom is not required to be inverted. It can also be played straight. – godskook – 2017-09-12T13:56:19.017

@psmears ...huh. I never knew there were idioms that were part of the language; my understanding of what an idiom is is a regional (or just tied to a certain dialect) phrase that may or may not follow the normal grammar rules, but has a certain accepted meaning. In other words, it's perfectly understandable to have nonstandard, grammatically incorrect phrases that are still used, because they're... Idioms. And the ones that are tied to a dialect/region might, obviously, not be present in other dialects/regions. – Fund Monica's Lawsuit – 2017-09-12T16:36:46.370

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"Is it really that hard of a concept to grasp?" is not standard English. Possible alternatives include

Is it really such a hard concept to grasp?
Is it really that hard a concept to grasp?
Is it really a hard concept to grasp?

These have approximately the same meaning, with decreasing emphasis on the level of disbelief.


With reference to StoneyB's suggestion about the non-standard use of "of", see the GrammarPhobia Blog for "It's not that big of a deal".

The author of this article says that use of "of" in "It's not that big of a deal" is unnecessary and non-standard. The form "noun of a noun" is standard - eg "devil of a time". In the present case we have "adjective of a noun", which is standard when the adjective is one of quantity - eg "enough of a problem," "much of a muchness" - but not when it is one of degree (big/small, long/short, good/bad).

The usage is probably of American origin, arising from a perceived need for a clearer boundary between the adjective ("big") and the indefinite article ("a"). With the increasing Americanization of English, this usage is becoming more common.

Hard/easy are adjectives of degree, so "that hard of a concept" is not standard English, but as an Americanism it might be acceptable.

sammy gerbil

Posted 2017-09-11T13:38:37.207

Reputation: 871

7It might be worth noting that "Is it really that hard of a concept" is very likely to be encountered in informal contexts, although it is deprecated in formal registers. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2017-09-11T14:22:29.693

2There are good constructions that violate your rule: the first of a series of examples, the best of the films I have seen, etc. I imagine that these doubtful constructions, like "that hard of a concept to grasp" are based on false analogies. – Chaim – 2017-09-11T17:53:29.317

3Note that the link doesn't say that "adjective of a noun" is strictly incorrect. It says that an adjective there is perfectly fine in standard English if the adjective is one of quantity (e.g. "too much of a drive"). It's only adjectives of degree that are proscribed. -- They also go out of their way to say "it shouldn’t be called incorrect—just inappropriate in formal English." – R.M. – 2017-09-11T18:22:54.423

1@R.M. I do not understand the difference between incorrect and inappropriate. All language usage is determined by custom, not logic. Whether one usage is correct or appropriate or standard or not depends on the degree to which it is used. – sammy gerbil – 2017-09-11T19:21:25.670

@sammygerbil And I don't understand what you mean by "not strictly correct". Isn't it more important whether something is or is not incorrect than whether it's strictly correct? (And, as far as I can tell, nobody is arguing that this is incorrect.) – David Schwartz – 2017-09-11T22:42:35.453

@DavidSchwartz What I mean is that correctness of language is a matter of the extent of usage, ie what is accepted as standard among the population. So by "not strictly correct" I mean that this usage is in the minority or it is widely used but accepted as not being officially correct. – sammy gerbil – 2017-09-11T22:59:54.180

1@DavidSchwartz "And, as far as I can tell, nobody is arguing that this is incorrect." - "Incorrect" or not, I've never seen or heard it used in the OP's context in literate British English, in the last 60 years. Maybe it's "correct" in some US dialects of English, but I don't know about that. – alephzero – 2017-09-12T00:52:12.583

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I like that this answer discusses the regional/dialect-specific nature of this construction. It would be a good answer if it replaced the "correct"/"not correct" labelling with more precise "formal"/"standard"/"written" qualifiers. It's common enough in spoken American English that most people wouldn't bat an eye at it; in COCA, it's actually more common in their spoken corpus since 2005 ("not that big of a" vs. "not that big a").

– Miles – 2017-09-12T03:58:05.617

In any case, in phrases such as @R.M.'s "too much of a drive", the words before the "of" are a noun (phrase), not an adjective (phrase). – Rosie F – 2017-09-12T07:23:19.400