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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?

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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!

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    It is entirely possible to use this idiom in a positive context: "Yes, quantum field theory really is that difficult of a subject." – Aaron Rotenberg Sep 12 '17 at 1:10
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    @AaronRotenberg but still incorrect, the correct Englsh form would be "Yes, quantum field theory really is that difficult a subject." – Mick Sep 12 '17 at 2:28
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    @Mick It's almost like idioms don't always make literal or grammatical sense. – Nic Hartley Sep 12 '17 at 4:16
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    @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 Sep 12 '17 at 8:15
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    @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 Sep 12 '17 at 13:23
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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.

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    It 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 Sep 11 '17 at 14:22
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    There 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 Sep 11 '17 at 17:53
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    Note 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. Sep 11 '17 at 18:22
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    @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 Sep 11 '17 at 19:21
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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 Sep 12 '17 at 3:58

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