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, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #421

Why Do People Say A-Whole-Nother?

Now we understand the phenomenon behind this expression, but we should also know how exactly it occurred in this particular case. Why not just say a whole other thing? Well, probably because speakers wish to express a specific nuance: A speaker references something, and then references an additional thing with the expression “another thing,” but wants to add the notion of “whole,” or “separate” to it, to emphasize the complete separateness of “thing 2.” On the blog English Stack Exchange, SmyWord comments, “I want to emphasize another so I add whole into the phrase.” He wants to emphasize the “addition” feel of it, and getting rid of the n would not allow such emphasis. (Think of that Oxford English Dictionary definition.)

Why re-analyze the an to a? SmyWord continues, “Whole, starting with a consonant, takes the article a, leaving over nother to complete the phrase.” SmyWord is absolutely correct: Whole begins with consonant “h,” which makes speakers need to put whole after the “a,” not after the “n,” yet not feel right saying a whole other thing as much, because losing the “n” loses the emphasis on an additional one or a different one that is encoded in the word another. [See Note 1.]

(For more on using a before words that start with a consonant, and an before words that start with a vowel, see “Why Do We Have Both A and An?” .)

So, it looks like speakers don’t quite “infix” whole into another; they “feel” like they are in fact uttering three separate words to introduce “thing.” (And, in a way, they are!) Because whole is serving as an adverb meaning “entirely,” a whole nother thing is a bit like the word sequence a very different dress: [determiner + adverb + adjective + noun]

Why Don’t People Say Another-Whole-Thing?

Last but not least, why don’t people feel inclined to put the whole somewhere else, like another whole thing? The answer is a difference in semantic scope. Another whole pie means a second pie in its entirety, right? Whole is an adjective modifying pie. But, a-whole-nother pie or the more-correct-yet-less-emphatically-satisfying a whole other pie means “an entirely different one” (in type, or flavor, perhaps), and whole is an adverb modifying adjective other. More important, when we use a-whole-nother to introduce a non-count noun, as in, a-whole-nother idea, we really cannot say another whole idea, because another would apply to whole idea, which speakers don’t want. Whole, again when used as an adverb meaning “entirely,” cannot modify the noun idea. What the speaker wants is for whole to apply to the another and to the idea, as an adverb. As you can see, another-whole-thing just doesn’t have the exact same meaning as a-whole-nother thing.

It’s still true that a whole lotta people dislike a-whole-nother, and many avoid it, but, we hope that if you’re one of those people, you now at least have an answer to the question of why people do it (and maybe even find it fascinating). 

Syelle Graves has a master’s degree in linguistics, and is a linguistics index editor for the International Bibliography of the Modern Language Association.



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Note 1: Some linguists may point out that there is an additional phonological (unconscious English sound rule) reason: We see that keeping the “n” is important for expressing that “additional” property, and, the word whole also winds up before the stressed syllable of another (just like expletive infixing—a common English stress pattern). Since, as we saw, an other has been largely re-analyzed as single word another, added linguistic material can’t go after the “n,” because doing so would split the stressed syllable in half. However, this syllable integrity rule would indicate that speakers think of the another in a-whole-nother as being a single word, while the clear metanalysis indicates that speakers are putting the “whole” between “two words.” The psychological reality of where speakers perceive the word boundaries in another when spontaneously producing a-whole-nother is difficult to ascertain anecdotally. It is likely an interface of phonological and semantic rules, and likely that the “moveable ‘n’” shows that both bracketed forms of another may optionally exist for speakers.


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