Why Do People Say 'A-Whole-Nother'?

Syelle Graves investigates why people say "a-whole-nother." It's the same reason we say "an apron" instead of "a napron."

Syelle Graves, Writing for
9-minute read
Episode #421

a whole nother.


Last week, in Part I, we learned about cool linguistics stuff such as morphemes and affixes, and decided that the way whole is splitting up another in a-whole-nother looks a lot like loose definitions of tmesis or infixing, but in fact, it’s not those things. It turns out that what matters here is the history and status of the word another.

Determiners Introduce Nouns

Merriam-Webster says another is an adjective, but linguists make a finer distinction than traditional grammar does, in that some adjectives, the ones that aren’t very “content-full” and are instead more “functional,” are given the more specific label determiner

Determiners introduce nouns, and include articles like the, and possessive adjectives like my, but they do not describe nouns the way true, content adjectives do (think green or nice). (Nouns are content words too, rich with semantic meaning, such as apple or sunset, while prepositions are function words, in that prepositions like of are extremely difficult to define.) So, another is certainly a determiner; it introduces nouns, as in, another apple, but doesn’t modify them, like the true adjective ripe in ripe apple

Next, what do we use another to express? We could summarize it as indicating “a second one” or “an additional one.” Notice that any context calling for That’s a-whole-nother thing! requires some original “thing” being contrasted with the new “thing.”

Whole Doesn’t Really Get “Infixed”

So, why can’t we just say that people have been pseudo-infixing the word whole into the word another? Let’s start with linguist James McMillan’s brief assessment of a-whole-nother as being metanalysis—not infixation—back in 1970, in which he cited examples dating back to 1958. Metanalysis, also spelled—incidentally—meta-analysis, or called rebracketing, is the idea that word boundaries—where one word ends and the next begins—can change or shift over time; it’s also a concept that we described in the article “How A Napron Became An Apron.” McMillan’s argument in favor of a-whole-nother not being infixation is that with that whole there, the n in another is “moveable.” 

Another argument in favor of calling the a-whole-nother phenomenon rebracketing, instead of infixing, is the fact that it is an isolated case, not a pattern that can be applied to many words, and that is just as most cases of rebracketing are. We don’t insert whole into any other host words! Infixing, on the other hand, is usually what linguists refer to as a productive process. Notice how freely we can “infix” expletives, as in Ala-frickin’-bama, as long as we follow the syllable rule we talked about last week, into all sorts of host words, and remember how -iz- inserting works the same way. 

These individual cases of rebracketing can also occur as temporary errors. The funniest ones are usually produced by children who can’t read yet and haven’t learned to spell, and some of the more well-known ones include thinking that Pulitzer Prize is pullet surprise, or replying to the order “Behave!” with “I am being -have!”


About the Author

Syelle Graves, Writing for Grammar Girl

Syelle Graves has a PhD in linguistics and is the assistant director of ILETC (Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context). She was also a 40 under Forty alumni award honoree at SUNY New Paltz. You can find her at syellegraves.com.