In the following sentence:

A seven year old kid stole the package.

How can I ask about the kid's age?

I know structures like

How old was the kid who stole the package?

But what about

How old a kid stole the package?

I've come across the pattern "How+modifier+noun" in this question:

How big a tv should I buy?

But I am not sure if it was asked by a native speaker.
I'd like to know if the pattern can be used in my example about age, since every part of speech seems to be the same in both.

Also, I Know this structure:

What size shirt do you wear?

Can we use this pattern to ask about age, as in

What age kid stole the package?


2 Answers 2


I would say that these patterns are not interchangeable. They have slightly different meanings.

The "how {modifier} a {noun}" pattern, because of the indefinite article, is asking not about a specific noun but about any member of class {noun}, and the focus is on the modifier.

How big a boat can this pickup truck tow?

This can be paraphrased, How big could any boat be and not exceed this pickup truck's towing capacity? What is the biggest boat this truck can tow? And the answer would not refer to a particular but but to a particular size of boat: This truck can tow at most a 4-ton boat.

When the definite article is used, we are speaking about a specific noun, and asking about one of its attributes.

How big was the boat this truck was towing when it overturned?

The answer would be "The boat weighed 6 tons" or "It was 27 feet in length".

If we ask:

How big a boat was this truck towing?

the emphasis is on the size of the boat. The modifier is brought to the foreground. The speaker doesn't care as much about the particular boat as about its size.

  • So how would a learner apply this explanation to the example set by the OP? E.G. How old should a kid be before they can watch a PG movie alone? How big/heavy a child can this pram carry?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 2, 2016 at 13:04
  • If you think the question is about the differences between "how old" and "at what age", then you may very well be the better mind-reader. You should answer that question, since I took it to be about the difference between "how big a boat" versus "how big was the boat".
    – TimR
    Dec 2, 2016 at 13:12
  • 1
    But the OP asks: Can we use this pattern to ask about age, as in... I could be mistaken, but that is what I understood, and the title asks: Question about age
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 2, 2016 at 13:17
  • My main question is about 'age'. I gave those examples to know if we can use the same pattern in that case, that is, age. Dec 2, 2016 at 13:18
  • 1
    How old a kid.... How old was the kid.... What age kid.... are all idiomatic, with slightly different nuances. They will all get you "7" in answer, given your stated context.
    – TimR
    Dec 2, 2016 at 13:24

To add on to TRomano's excellent answer: I think "How big a truck ...?" is the shortened form of "How big of a truck ...?" implying the question is generally about what would be the appropriate size truck for the purpose. In the context of age, you could say something like:

How old a child is allowed to ride the roller coaster?

Parents often ask how old a child is ready to start dating.

This fits with the pattern, to ask what age it appropriate or necessary for a child to do these things.

I can't recall if I've ever personally said "how old a child" but it's not an unusual phrase. Interestingly enough one of the first results I found through Google Ngram is from "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World":

Readers continually debate how old a child should be ... to go to Disney World.

This pattern doesn't seem to work as well when asking about the age of a known subject, except perhaps as a regional colloquialism:

They done asked me how old a kid was it that stole the package.

Various regions in the US are full of such expressions.

  • 2
    How big of a is not a base form which is abbreviated but a colloquial expansion of how big a, modeled on the construction with a noun rather than an adjective (e.g. What quantity of nails do you want?). Otherwise you're correct. Dec 2, 2016 at 15:58
  • @StoneyB interesting I was thinking it the other way around, since "of a" is a repetition of (more or less) the same syllable, it got shortened to just "a". I wonder why people thought the extra "of" added meaning?
    – Andrew
    Dec 2, 2016 at 16:35
  • 1
    As I said, I imagine that the of intruded from the nominal construction; in everyday speech what we learn is constructions, not grammatical structures. It may be that specifically the construction with quantifiers like much, few, which are inherently ambiguous between determiner and pronominal use, mediated the transition--it's an easy step from How much of a change do you expect? to How big of a change ...? Dec 2, 2016 at 17:45

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