Bad of shape

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Josh Marshall, "Prep for the Overshoot", TPM 4/19/2016 (emphasis added):

[P]eople had convinced themselves last week that Trump was basically done – largely on the basis of a few bad news cycles and a big loss in Wisconsin. As long as he didn't get to 1237, he was toast. But Wisconsin was obviously an outlier. Now though things look very different. And they are different. But part of that is that Trump was never in as bad of shape as people thought ten days ago.

From COCA:

I didn't even know that they were in that bad of shape.
No club arrives at the halfway point in this bad of shape because of a singular issue.
So in how bad of trouble are congressional Republicans
And I've seen some of my numbers and I'm not too in too bad of shape

It's not in that bad of condition.

It don't seem like she's in too good of shape, but she is alive.
As good of friends as we are, we've been on different paths for several years.
It could be she will never get as good of press as she's getting right now.
Who would have thought that you could get this good of pizza at Country Barbecue.

How big of emergency is this, the debt situation?
This isn't that big of deal anymore.
Can you tell us about how big of damage there is?
I want to get your reaction to what the president said to me when I asked him about how big of threat is ISIS to America's national security.

The fact that that many people were injured by that small of device would perhaps be an indication that it was packed with dangerous and lethal bits like nails 
She said not to break up the curd into too small of pieces because that results in more waste.

Somebody (Haj Ross?) probably gave this construction an evocative name back in 1970 or so, but I don't know what it is.

This was once a purely informal/conversational construction, I think, but it's starting to diffuse into the written language. For me, indefinite articles get preserved:

in bad shape ↔ in that bad of shape
in a small device ↔ in that small of a device (not *that small of device)

but apparently the English language is taking a different path…



  1. Rodger C said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 6:44 am

    Perhaps "that bad of shape" is a reanalysis of "that bad a shape," with both "a" and "of" pronounced schwa? "How big of emergency" is the only example given that couldn't be spelled either way, but it's telling of what's happening to the construction.

  2. lynneguist said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 7:35 am

    This is something that British speakers point out to me as an 'American illiteratism' where the 'of' should be 'a'.

  3. Kevin Wallace said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 8:05 am

    Growing up in Texas, this is something I heard a lot, but never saw in written English. I always assumed it as "that bad a shape", too, but the Texan "of" sounds a lot like "a" anyway.

  4. FM said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 8:59 am

    I would say "in that bad of a shape" <- there always has to be an indefinite article in there even if there wasn't in the original phrase

    The one with the plural ("too small of pieces") definitely doesn't work for me.

  5. Doreen said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 9:14 am

    Relevant Family Guy dialogue snippet:

  6. Mark P said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    I take the indefinite article, too, but even that usage sounds awkward to me. I think I tend to say "that bad a shape", like FM says.

  7. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 9:41 am

    A construction I see regularly in my editing is on the order of "that bad of a shape." This looks to me like a further development.

  8. David L said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    I agree that the evolution is most likely the addition of 'of' to 'that bad a shape,' followed by the dropping of 'a,' but to my ear the base phrase is awkward to begin with. I would say "Trump was never in such bad shape as people had thought."

    Does that seem old-fashioned? British? I'unno.

  9. Russell said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 11:28 am

    It seems to have been termed the "big mess" construction by Arlene Berman in her 1974 dissertation (which seems not to be available online but is referenced, e.g., by Van Eynde).

  10. cameron said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 12:18 pm

    I would edit "in that bad of shape" or "in that bad a shape" to "in such bad shape". In some cases "in such a bad shape" would be preferable.

  11. Jan said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 12:40 pm

    I'd leave them both out (that bad shape). Neither of the others sounds right. (AmE-all over).

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

    I don't think "that bad of shape" is likely to have come from "that bad a shape". The earliest hits on such constructions I found at COHA have "of a". There's nothing relevant there for "too|that|as|how|so big|bad of [noun]". (The irrelevant hits are like "It's too bad of aunt to discharge the servants…")

    However, hits on "too|that|as|how|so big|bad of a [nn*]" start with "too bad of a job" from No Time for Sergeants in 1955. Then there's "that bad of a guy" (misleadingly listed three times) in 1980 and others in the '90s. So I think "that bad of shape" was extended from "that bad of a guy", etc.

    Prof. Liberman was looking at anarthrous examples as a relatively new trend, but with count nouns, they're very rare. From COCA:

    too|that|as|how|so big|good|bad of a deal: 144
    too|that|as|how|so big|good|bad of deal: 5

    I'm surprised it's even that common, but I wonder about typos and transcription errors.

    My data-free speculation for "too bad of a job" (etc.) is putting the adjective before the article felt so unnatural that people inserted another word in there, with "of" suggested by phrases such as "it's too bad of Nesbit" and "he's too much of a romantic", and usable because "of" is a complete grammar word that doesn't suggest any red-herring meanings.

    Editors: What would you do with "It's in too bad shape to use"?

    Russell: Thanks for the term "big mess". I think I detect the possibility of a hint of prescriptivism.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

    Editors: I meant to ask what you'd do with "It's in too bad of shape to use"?

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

    To summarize my long comment, I agree with Ralph Hickok in general. Specifically, though, COCA has no hits for "bad of a shape", but 10 for "bad of shape".

  15. David L said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

    @Jerry F: I would just change it to "It's in too bad a shape to use."

    If it were part of a government report, I might go for "The extent of its morphological deformation was determined to exceed the utility threshold."

  16. Guy said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 1:51 pm

    Is there really a missing article here? We say "he's in bad shape", not "he's in a bad shape". The "of" is just the usual alternation "that big a truck"/"that big of a truck" where the latter has become increasingly standard.

  17. Philip said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 5:51 pm

    From FOWLER:
    This is ugly when not necessary. Types of phrase in which it is necessary are: Many a youth; What a lie! How dreadful a fate! So lame an excuse.

    the 'so lame an excuse' above is analogous to 'that bad a shape'. Speakers on this side of the Atlantic would generally have no idea what 'of' was doing in such a construction.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 11:52 pm

    David L: Thanks. I suspect others would arrive at other solutions. I'm sure the government one has its uses too. :-)

    Guy: I'd say there's a missing article in Prof. Liberman's third and fourth sets of examples, starting with "How big of emergency is this, the debt situation?" Otherwise I agree with you. I'll point out, though, that this alternation started earlier in phrases with indefinite articles than in those without.

    Philip: I'd say "How dreadful a fate!" is also an example of the same thing, as is "I can't tell you how dreadful a fate it was." And there are people on this side of the Atlantic too who don't know what the "of" is doing there, though we're familiar with it.

  19. fev said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 6:13 am

    Just heard an "as high of inequality" from a correspondent on NPR.

    On the original topic, I'd go with "as bad of a shape."

  20. Bean said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 7:15 am

    I just typed "it's slightly shorter of a trip" in an email without realizing it. Thinking of this thread, I went back and changed to "it's a slightly shorter trip". But you can't go back when talking, if you've already kicked off with "it's slightly shorter…" the only way to finish half-gracefully is to end with "…of a trip". Because you'd forgotten the "a" in the first case.

  21. mollymooly said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

    Most examples given are not in my dialect. These are the two most interesting:

    * As good of friends as we are, we've been on different paths for several years.
    * So in how bad of trouble are congressional Republicans

    Although deleting the "of" certainly makes them a bit less unidiomatic for me, the results are still quite awkward; only a more comprehensive recasting can make them sit nicely. These seem like those sentences where you've spoken the first few words before you realise you should have used a different template; the dilemma is, either plough on with a chimera sentence, or else abort and try again.

  22. Ellen K. said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 4:38 pm

    "that bad /ə/ shape" sounds unremarkable me, but both written forms "that bad of shape" and "that bad a shape", seem wrong to me. I think I don't mentally analyze it as either word. I guess I think of it as a clitic of some sort. "That badda shape" would make more sense to me, though that and "that bada shape" get a combined 16 Google hits (and some of those may be typos for "that bad a shape") so it's apparently rare for people to write it that way.

  23. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 5:01 pm

    Depending on the context (and perhaps sometimes on the ntended audience), I will generally edit something like "that bad of a shape" simply to "that bad a shape." But sometimes I'll change it to "such bad shape."

    I don't remember ever encountering anything like "It's in too bad of shape to use," but that takes a little more work. I would probably change to "It's in such bad shape that it can't be used" or something like that. Again, context matters.

  24. January First-of-May said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 6:06 pm

    Plus one for "as bad of a shape" (and "that bad of a shape", and I'd probably use similar "of a" constructions in all the non-plural examples from the OP).

  25. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 1:09 am

    Does "bad of a situation" or "bad a situation" turn up in places where "bad shape" and "bad of a shape" might also be used? As an editor, I might have said in conversation that "Trump was never in as bad of a situation as people thought…" When editing written work, it is more likely I might have recast entirely or gone with "Trump was never in such bad shape as people thought…"

  26. Bean said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 6:38 am

    I've been mulling this over for days now not quite putting my finger on it, then I re-read Jerry Friedman's post waaay up there and I think he's got it. It's some kind of parallel construction to the idea of, e.g., "too much of a romantic" which is perfectly acceptable, then pretty much substituting all the words, "too much" -> "that bad" and then "romantic" -> "shape" even though the net construction is somewhat awkward.

    Also I still feel there is an implied question you're answering here, trying to take something with a binary answer ("Is in in bad shape?" "Yes/No"), turning it into something you can quantify ("How bad a shape is it in?" "Oh, it's in too bad of a shape".) It's some kind of cross product of the two constructions.

    Although, the more we discuss it, the more inured I am to the sound of it. :P

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