Column: Too clever by half


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Kids love to tell you precisely how old they are. Adults, on the other hand, treat age like a tightly guarded state secret. With kids, the “half” in their age makes all the difference. My son isn’t merely “7”; he’s “7 1/2.” You’d better get the “half” in there, or he’ll take it as an insult. I have half a mind to divulge my age, but I stopped counting a long time ago.

It’s time to take a half-baked look at “half.” Specifically, I want to understand the difference between the phrases “a half,” “half a” and “half of.” Which is correct? Do any of them make us sound dumb when we say them? Let’s explore.

I’ll start with the low-hanging fruit “half of.” The preposition “of” is not necessary, but it’s also not wrong. So, when I say, “Half of my records are Beatles records,” that’s fine, but the “of” doesn’t have to be there.

What’s the difference between “a half” and “half a”? After all, it’s important to make a distinction between the “halves” and the “half-nots.”

If I had “half a box” of Lucky Charms cereal, this would indicate that the box is half full of cereal. If this was in my house, that would mean my daughter had dumped out all the cereal, eaten just the marshmallows and then returned the boring cereal bits back in the box. However, if I had “a half box” of Lucky Charms, this could potentially mean that a ninja snuck into my pantry and sliced the box in half with his katana, leaving only a half box.

I have half a mind to stop there, but our arrangement of “a half” or “half a” has quantitative consequences. Much of the time it doesn’t matter, nor does it change the meaning. For example, you could say, “I ran a half-mile this morning.” You could also say, “I ran half a mile this morning.”

However, there’s a major difference between running “a half marathon” and “half a marathon.” A half marathon is a specific running event in which people run 13.1 miles. If you run “a half marathon,” this would suggest that you finished the 13.1-mile race. If you said you ran “half a marathon,” it would seem that you quit the marathon (26.2 miles) when you were only halfway done. Be careful when throwing “a half” and “half a” around interchangeably or your friends might label you as a half-wit.