Word Count

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.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 26th 2009, 4:04 AM
Comment by: Steve V.
I took the time to follow that through and i'm glad I did. Very interesting.
Wednesday August 26th 2009, 8:16 AM
Comment by: Chris B.
I was shamed into relegating "a whole nother" to the attic at least twenty years ago. Today, I apologize to my family and community, dust off my nother and welcome it back into my vocabulary. Thank you for the research and explanation.
Wednesday August 26th 2009, 10:30 AM
Comment by: wandev (Montgomery, AL)
I learned more than just usage of "a whole nother thing" from your article. Now that's the kind of article I enjoy reading. Thanks! I am new to Visual Thesaurus and I will look forward to your future articles.

Wanda Devereaux
Wednesday August 26th 2009, 11:02 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
What about those of us who have used 'a whole nother' without knowing its history?

I'm not sure which came first for me though I did realize that medieval speech included it.

Would that have been used as a misdivision and as an historical entity dusted off?

I loved Chris B's comment about that!

I've thought of it as the same sort of thing that young tots do, like with spaghetti as 'bisquetti' and so on...
Wednesday August 26th 2009, 3:04 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth K.
Thank you for that very informative article. It was interesting to note that "nother" is a pronoun that was used in the middle ages.

It sounds strange, and is thought by many (including myself) to be incorrect. Your article was very enlightening.

The Visual Thesaurus feature articles are always teaching tools. I enjoy them emensely.

Can you find a reason why some people say "twill" when I think they really mean until.
Wednesday August 26th 2009, 7:25 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Elizabeth, I've heard 'twill, but I've always taken it to mean it will. I think it was quite common somewhere where I lived! (Confusion of locations and accents!)
Wednesday August 26th 2009, 9:17 PM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
Here in the midwest, I often hear the phrase "I borrowed him" or "will you borrow me?" that turn my hearing to a "whole nother thing." Reading the ancient derivation of nother, perhaps borrow can also mean loan?
Thursday August 27th 2009, 6:41 AM
Comment by: Bruce (Florence, SC)
Jane B. "Whole nother" was quite common in my small Illinois town. It was founded and populated by German Swiss and growing up I was inundated by English and German colloquialisms. People often ended sentences with "or not" or "ja" where it didn't seem to make sense. For some reason even the educated spoke in double negatives. Common greetings were "vi getes" and "vas ist los". I think the later translates to "what's loose with you".
Thursday August 27th 2009, 10:02 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Oh, Vie getes and vas is los are familiar to me from Pennsylavain Dutch country! Lovely phrases!

The PD talk of southeastern Pennsylvania is replete with colourful expressions. "My off is all" is just the beginning!
Thursday September 3rd 2009, 6:03 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth K.
Jane B.

I thought it "twill" meant until because it was used in sentences such as: "I going on vacation, I won't be back twill the end of the month".
"Worked overtime, twill 10 o'clock last night"

I guess it can have different meanings depending on the sentence.

Thank you for your input, as used in your illustration it makes.
Thursday September 3rd 2009, 6:09 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth K.
Jane B.

The last words in my response to your comment should have been makes sense.
Kindly pardon me.

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