LINGUIST List 14.2909

Fri Oct 24 2003

Sum: 'A Whole Nother Thing'

Editor for this issue: Naomi Fox <>


  1. William J. Rapaport, "a whole nother thing" follow-up

Message 1: "a whole nother thing" follow-up

Date: Tue, 21 Oct 2003 10:40:46 -0400 (EDT)
From: William J. Rapaport <rapaportcse.Buffalo.EDU>
Subject: "a whole nother thing" follow-up

In LINGUIST 14.2043 (30 July 2003), I queried as follows:

Date: Tue, 29 Jul 2003 15:40:28 -0400 (EDT)
From: "William J. Rapaport" <rapaportcse.Buffalo.EDU>
Subject: "a whole nother thing"

Has anyone ever commented on the idiom "that's a whole nother thing",
where the word "whole" is inserted inside the word "another"? I've
heard this in New York City dialects (the one I grew up with; I've
said "a whole nother thing" all my life but only recently realized
how odd it is) and also in Australia.

I've received a number of replies; here's a summary of them, loosely
categorized into "Other Attestations", "Explanations", and "Other
Sources of Information", with much overlap:

Other Attestations:

From: "Mary Raymond" <>

It's also in England but whether that's because we've borrowed it from =
the Americans I don't know - I'd be interested to hear though!

From: Rebecca Larche Moreton <>

This is normal English in the Deep South, probably anywhere in the 
South. It's the only way to give the meaning, in fact. We do not say *a 
whole other thing.
	Becky (age 66; born, Jackson, Mississippi)

From: DK <>

I can say "a whole nuther thing," although I consider it very
colloquial. It seems that "nuther" is becoming a word that means
something like "different." Similarly, I'll say "ain't" when I'm
drinking beer with friends, but never in any sort of formal situation.
I don't have a consistent dialect, I have lived in ten different states
in the US, mostly MidAtlantic, Midwest and Southwest. 

From: "Debbie Berkley" <>, Microsoft Natural Language Group

I say "a whole nother" in every case where other people might presumably
say "another whole." I'm a southern California native, born 1950. My
husband, a Washington (state) native, gets after me about it from time
to time. I'm a phonologist by education and feel the answer must lie
there but have never thought much about it.

From: Mary Ellen Ryder <>
Dept of English, Boise State University

I don't know if this is what you mean by "comment on", but I have this 
phrase in my idiolect. I'm a dialectical mongrel: born in Maryland in 
the DC suburbs, went to college in Rhode Island, subsequently lived 
briefly in Ohio, Wisconsin and Arizona, before spending 12 years in San 
Diego and 15 years in Idaho (Boise). Not sure where I picked the phrase 
up; I don't _think_ it was in my native dialect, but by now it's hard 
for me to tell.

From: Clyde Hankey <>
Youngstown State Univ., OH [retired]

"A whole nother thing" has always been a common expression in the
western PA - eastern OH part of the US. Even some of my English
department colleagues have used it, though mostly in a self-conscious
way, with amusement though not apology. I don't have any sense of its
frequency statistically, but it seems to exist as a less awkward
equivalent to "a wholly other thing" or "wholly another thing" -- which
I associate with only the most deliberate, cautious, or stilted use.

I would suggest that the usage is loosely comparable to the so-called
Split Infinitive in that it divides an expression [this time a word
rather than merely a phrase] in order to avoid an awkward or cumbersome

(Other) Explanations:

From: "Douglas J. Lightfoot" <>
Assistant Professor of German Linguistics
The University of Alabama 

Looks like a classic case of reanalysis along the opposite lines of Old
French 'naperon' (mod.F. napperon) wending its way into English
eventually as 'an apron'(maybe completely by the end of the 16th century
without the initial 'n', but I'd have to check).

I notice myself using this 'a nother' formulation, and I grew up and 
have lived mostly in California. I don't notice its use here in 
Alabama, but it wouldn't surprise me to find it. In my relaxed 
speech, 'nother', whether preceded by 'whole' or not, has the feel of 
being its own word. 

[[Comment from Bill Rapaport: I grew up in NYC, which must have been
where I picked up the "whole nother thing" phrase, but I have *never*
used " 'nother " all by itself.]]

From: Marc Picard <>

Rather than whole being inserted inside another, it is simply a question
of an other being misdivided as a nother. Other examples are a newt from
an ewt, a nickname from an ekename, and a notch from an otch. The
opposite misdivision has occurred in an adder from a nadder, an apron
from a napron, and an umpire from a nompere.

From: "Dr. Richard Laurent" <>

This wouldn't be the first time such a misdivision has taken place.
It can go either way, with the mobile n (apologies to Hellenists)
becoming attached either to the indefinite article or to a
vowel-initial noun. In the past 1000 years English has developed:

	an ekename 'also-name' > a nickname
	a napron > an apron (cf. napkin; napery)
	a nadder > an adder (cf. German Nader or something like that).

Thus, a whole nother forms part of a long tradition that will no
doubt continue until an loses its final -n.

From: Remy Viredaz <>

I think it is a nice example of one of the main kinds of linguistic
innovation, namely the persistence in adult age of errors arisen in child
language, i.e. at the learning stage.

From: Katalin Balogne Berces <>
* PhD student, English Linguistics PhD Programme,
 Eotvos Lorand University
* assistant lecturer, Dept. of English Language and Literature,
 Pazmany Peter Catholic University, Hungary

The phenomenon is called infixation because a morpheme is inserted into
the middle of another one. This specific case in English is usually
referred to as "fuckin'" infixation since that swearword undergoes it
the most often, usually in American English (cf. "Kalama-fuckin-zoo").
The British English equivalents are "bloody" and "bloomin", as in
"abso-bloomin-lutely" by Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
As far as I know, the first person to write about fuckin infixation was
Mark Aronoff (Word formation in generative grammar, 1976), who says it's
phonologically conditioned in that the site of insertion is at foot
boundaries. You can find further examples in several introduction
to linguistics books, e.g. I clearly remember Yule mentioning this in
the chapter on morphology. One of my colleagues' collection includes
"I guaran-damn-tee" promised by a leading US politician.

[[Comment from Bill Rapaport: I prefer this explanation to the
"an other" -> "a nother" explanation, since, as I noted above, in my
dialect at least, I never use "nother" by itself. My use of "a whole
nother thing" *feels* like the insertion of one word ("whole") inside
another word ("another"); it does not "feel" like a migrating "n" plus
a perfectly ordinary adjectival modification.]]

From: "Pete Unseth" <>

I don't think I agree that "whole" inserted into "another". I've always 
thought of 'nother as an integral word, albeit having undergone initial 
truncation. I think we can use "whole nother" without the "a" preceding 
it, though none of this is my academic register of English:

"You gave me several whole nother reasons to not buy that car, things I 
had not thought before."
"You gave me lots of whole nother reasons to not buy that car..."

[[Bill Rapaport again: Neither of these are acceptable in my NYC
dialect--further evidence (for me, at least) that the insertion
theory is correct.]]

Other Sources of Information:

From: "Katie Schack" <>

The American Dialect Society email list is usually the first place I
check for this sort of thing (at least as far as American dialects are
concerned). As it turns out, there's a discussion on a whole
other/nother from October of last year, which is a good starting point
at least. Here's the link to search the archives (which are actually
kept on the LinguistList site):

[[Bill again: I checked that link; there is some useful material at;


From: Taylor Roberts <>

In response to your query in LINGUIST 14-2043, I remember John McWhorter
writing a small section about this construction in his book, _The word on
the street: fact and fable about American English_ (1998).

From: Prof. Theo Vennemann <>
Univ. of Munich

There is a treatment of the indefinite article in my paper "Rule 
inversion" in Lingua 29 (1972), 209-242. The phenomenon that 
interests you is treated at some length in the sequel "Restructuring" 
in Lingua 33 (1974), 137-156. See in particular page 143.

From: "David Denison" <>
Dept of English and American Studies 
University of Manchester

Although I wouldn't pretend that it's the earliest, most detailed or
most authoritative mention of the locution - in fact I bet it's none of
them! - I did draw attention to it in the following long chapter:

Denison, David (1998) 'Syntax'. In Suzanne Romaine (ed.) _The Cambridge 
history of the English language_, vol. 4, 1776-1997. Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge. pp. 92-329.

On pp.123-4 I've got this snippet:

Occasionally one hears locutions with, apparently, _another_ interrupted
by an adjective, typically _whole_; the main fragment may even be the
nonstandard and originally jocular form _nother_:

(86)	A whole other wife and children all unbeknownst to Ackerley
	until after his father's death.
	(1982 London Rev. Bks. 20 May-2 Jun. 3 [OED])

(87)	but that's a whole nother story
	(1993 Robert Stockwell, p.c. (19 Oct.))

Rather than adjective preceding determiner, which would be a major
structural change in the NP, this is probably better taken as
premodification within the Determiner slot. [end quote]
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue