Writers Talk About Writing
A Whole Nother Issue
Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copyediting newsletter, offers useful tips to copy editors and anyone else who prizes clear and orderly writing. Here she investigates a common colloquialism, "a whole nother..."
Last week, I sent out a tweet asking people to send me examples of aural spellings — words spelled as they sound to the person who wrote them, such as a sign I saw in a shop window: "Mini-blines 50% off." I'm still collecting examples, which I'll use in a future Copyediting Tip. In the meantime, I thought that readers might be interested in my reply to someone who offered an example of something that isn't quite an aural spelling but is still interesting.
This person asked whether "a whole nother" was an example of what I meant. While it does reflect what is largely a spoken phrase, the transcription is not an incorrect spelling. Instead, it's an accurate spelling of what is perceived to be an incorrect usage.
One school of thought perceives "a whole nother" to be the result of a combination of modifier infixing ("abso-effin-lutely" is an example) and misdivision, which is a type of metanalysis. In metanalysis, the person who hears a word or phrase misinterprets the roles of the elements that form the word or phrase. In the Oxford English Dictionary entry for metanalysis, a citation explains, "Examples of metanalysis are the longer forms of peas and cherries, originally singulars, which were reinterpreted as pea and cherry plus the noun plural morpheme /z/." (Think about "pease porridge hot" and the French word for "cherry," cerise.)
In English, words that begin with vowel sounds or the sound /n/ are particularly prone to misdivision because we use a or an depending upon whether the following noun begins with a consonant or a vowel. In misdivision, the /n/ migrates. Two examples of this are given in the Oxford English Dictionary entry for misdivision: "an ewte" became "a newt," and "a napron" became "an apron." As you can see, the /n/ can move in either direction.
Now we come to "a whole nother." The "proper" way to say this colloquially (instead of saying "That's another thing entirely") is now to say "That's a whole other thing." But the pronoun nother is ancient, going back to Old English. The pronoun use "the nother" instead of "the other" is attested in Middle English, as is the use of "a nother" instead of "another" as a determiner. It's this last use that allows for a modifier to come between the article and the determiner. Thus it is not likely that "a whole nother" is the result of misdivision; it's simply a vestige of an earlier usage that we have retained in colloquial use in the United States but that has largely died out elsewhere.
Wendalyn Nichols is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and a commissioning editor of dictionaries for Cambridge University Press. She began as a freelance researcher, writer, and editor, then became a lexicographer and editor with the Longman Group. For four years she was the editorial director of Random House Reference and Information Publishing. She lives in New York, New York with her husband and young daughter. Follow her on Twitter @WendalynNichols and @Copyediting.