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Here's some examples of the phrase "a/one hell of a" from a dictionary:

‘They have asked Santa for bikes because they have a hell of (a lot of) cycling to do.’

‘Assuming we get any takers at all in this mad scheme, it should be a hell of (a lot of) fun.’

‘With these aircraft coming to the end of their lives, the cost of replacing them is a hell of (a lot of) money.’

‘Even its biggest advocates would have to admit that it really is one hell of (a lot of) hot air blowing slowly round the internet.’

‘It would need one hell of (a lot of) earthworms to digest that sort of quantity, and the beds and borders aren't getting any fuller.’

‘It will take time and effort and money too, though a hell of (a lot) less than buying one legally.’

‘And I have to admit that there is one hell of (a lot of) good source material I could be using.’

‘The reason the girls are outperforming the lads is because they work a hell of (a lot) harder.’

As shown in the dictionary, the expression is "a/one hell of a...", and indeed "a/one hell of" is always followed by "a".

In all the examples cited here, "a/one hell of" is followed by "a lot of"/"a lot" which is then followed by an uncountable noun, a plural noun, or even an adjective.

I have excluded those examples where "a/one hell of" is followed by "a" and a countable noun. And I have bracketed "a lot of" or "a lot" to see if you can remove the phrase without making the sentence ungrammatical.

Does any one of these examples work without the bracketed "a lot of" or "a lot"?

If not, I wonder why is "a/one hell of" always followed by "a", be it part of "a lot (of)" or of a noun phrase containing a singular noun?

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    In all your cases "hell of" modifies "a lot": lot is a countable noun. But you should view this as a frozen phrase. The intensifier has been handed down whole through the ages as the "hell of a [something]" construction, and simply sounds wrong any other way. – Robusto Jan 19 '17 at 15:28
  • Perhaps to help prevent confusion between the "literal" meaning of "hell" and its use as an intensifier. Meanwhile, I did think of some examples that I think could be idiomatic with uncountables. "I have to drink a hell of coffee if I ever want to wake up from this hangover." "And I have to admit that there is a hell of material I could be using." But honestly, I'd say the interpretation could go both ways and I had upvoted Robusto's comment that this is just the way it's always been said. – Teacher KSHuang Jan 20 '17 at 11:08
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As Robusto mentions in his comment, this is an idiomatic expression, meaning that's just how people talk. All of your examples actually require the "a lot of" to work grammatically, but here are some other examples:

He is one hell of a boxer.

It's a hell of a hard climb up there, but there's a nice view from the top.

It's a hell of a time we live in.

Side Note: "a hell of a" is not necessarily a negative expression. It acts more or less as an intensifier for an often unspoken adjective, the exact meaning of which you have to figure out from context. This isn't always clear:

That's a hell of a speech you gave there, Joe.

Was it a good speech? A bad speech? Did the speaker like it? We really can't tell without more context, or from the speaker's intonation.

See also the similar expression "A devil of a":

I had a devil of a time getting through all that paperwork.

  • Thanks. But I'm looking for a reason for the expression being always followed by a countable noun. – JK2 Jan 20 '17 at 2:19
  • "Boxer", "climb", "time", and "speech" are all countable nouns. So I'm not sure what exactly you are asking for. – Andrew Jan 20 '17 at 3:56
  • I mean, I'm asking why is "a hell of" always followed by a singular countable noun such as "boxer", "climb" etc, but never by a plural countable noun or an uncountable noun. – JK2 Jan 20 '17 at 4:10
  • I'm not sure that's true. You can say something like, "that's a hell of a liquid you got there," but with no context it wouldn't really make sense. – Andrew Jan 20 '17 at 4:17
  • Can you say "That's a hell of coffee"? Or should it be "That's a hell of a coffee" (even though coffee here is not countable)? – JK2 Jan 20 '17 at 4:23
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The pattern you are using is

a hell of a
one hell of a

which is used as an intensifier which usually has the meaning of greater or more than using very.

It can be used in either a "good" or "bad" connotation.

The article "a" is used since the comparison is one chosen from many.

He's one hell of a person.
he is the best person from many people

That's a hell of a ride.
that's the best ride from many rides

The expression is sometimes shortened to

helluva

in the same way that "going to" is shortened to "gonna".

  • Thanks for giving a reason, i.e., the comparison is one chosen from many. But what about the expression being followed by "lot"? – JK2 Jan 20 '17 at 2:17
  • "A lot" means "much" or "to a great extent", so "hell of a lot of something" = "great amount of something", "hell of a lot less"="very much less", "hell of a lot more"="very much more". – Peter Jan 20 '17 at 20:03

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