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What's the difference between "sort of" and "a sort of"? Are they interchangeable or they have some differences? For instance:

  • It's a sort of horror film;

  • He gets sort of nervous.

Why do we put the article in the first sentence?

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The phrase "sort of" (or "kind of", which I, an American, use more often) has a literal meaning nearly equivalent to "type of", as well as a functional usage that makes a description vague, like the word "somewhat". Your first sentence could be literal, as in the exchange:

A: What is a slasher film?
B: It's a sort of horror film.
A: Oh. What exactly makes a horror film a slasher film?

In this literal usage, "sort" is a noun, and "of horror film" modifies it. Because this interpretation is usually possible, you probably don't want to use this form unless you mean it in this literal sense.

If you rearrange the words of the first example to be "It's sort of a horror film", it could occur in an exchange like this:

A: What is "Get Out"?
B: It's sort of a horror film.
A: Do you mean it's not really a horror film?
B: Well, it's not a typical horror film.

In this usage "sort of" cannot be interpreted as "type of", and its function is to make the characterization of "Get Out" as a horror film a bit vague or tentative.

In your second example, "He gets sort of nervous", it is not possible to interpret "sort of" literally, since "nervous" is an adjective. As a result, "sort of nervous" can only mean "somewhat nervous", or "rather nervous", both slightly vague versions of plain "nervous". It would be ungrammatical to say "He gets a sort of nervous", because "sort of" is an adverbial in this case and cannot take an article.

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In both cases the phrase "sort of" is being used as an adjective, to indicate approximation. Thus both sentences must make sense when the phrase "sort of" is removed, which is why an article is needed in the first.

The phrase "sort of" is informal, but the 2nd sentence uses that phrase in an informal manner. It should be "He gets a sort of nervousness", but that construction is awkward and so "He gets nervous" becomes "He gets sort of nervous" or "He gets nervous, sort of".

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    Or said from a slightly different perspective, the "a" is associated with what "sort of" describes, not "sort of", itself. So inclusion of "a" is based on whether the object of "sort of" warrants it.
    – fixer1234
    Apr 20, 2017 at 18:11
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“Sort of” (more common in British English) and “kind of” (more common in American English) are used to soften other words and phrases so that they do not appear too direct or exact. The near synonyms to the phrases are moderately, slightly, somewhat, etc.:

I’m sort of nervous about the wedding.

“A sort of” a is used to describe something approximately:

It's a sort of pale orange color

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  • Cambridge may say that "kind of" is more common in American English, but it's probably not by much. My gut would tell me that both expressions are used rather often in the U.S.
    – J.R.
    Apr 20, 2017 at 18:40
  • This Google Ngrams search suggests that the two are about equal in British English, and "kind of" is more popular in American English: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – stangdon
    Apr 20, 2017 at 18:45

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