In a song by rap group NWA they say this:

"The bitch sucked one hell of a dick"

Disregarding the potentially offensive nature of the quote, it stood out to me that although "hell of a" is an adjective acting on "dick", it isn't describing the penis itself, but modifying the act of oral sex (so in this case it's synonymous with "she performs well at oral sex"

This example is clearly a colloquial use and wouldn't be found in formal text. Are there any examples of this occurring in formal use, and if not, are there further common colloquial answers?


Wow, the example is indeed probably offensive to some, and I apologize in advance to anyone who is offended by the fact that I am now going to risk an answer.

I agree with the question's premise that one hell of a is frozen expression that functions syntactically like an adjective. Thus one hell of a is an adjective modifying dick. Interestingly, the expression suck...dick is also a fixed expression, that is, the two words suck and dick build one meaning together, namely 'fellatio'. The meaning is therefore non-compositional.

We can see that one hell of a is functioning like an adjective because it can be replaced by a clear adjective:

 She sucks good dick. 

In this case, good functions syntactically and semantically just like one hell of a.

This process is a common occurrence in many languages. A verb and a noun together form a noncompisitional meaning that at times can be expressed with a single verb. Consider the following cases:

 (1)  a. Fred showered.
      b. Fred showered for twenty minutes.

      c. Fred took a shower.
      d. Fred took a twenty-minute shower.

We can see that the same basic thing is going on in these cases. English, like most languages, has varied means at its disposal that allow it to express closely similar meanings. When the verb and the object noun together form the predicate, as in (1c-d), the language can use an adjective to modify the complex predicate. When the predicate is simple, as in (1a-b), in contrast, the language uses an adverbial expression to modify the predicate (here for twenty minutes). Another example:

 (2)   a. He screwed up terribly.
       a. He made a terrible mistake.

We can see the same thing occurring here. The verbal predicate screwed up in (2a) must be modified by an adverb (here terribly), whereas the complex predicate made...mistake can hardly be modified by an adverb (??She made a mistake terribly), but rather an adjective on the noun must be used (here terrible).

Thus to answer the question directly, the mechanism of modification present in the example in the question is a common type of modification that readily occurs in informal as well as formal language. Complex predicates that are formed with a verb and a noun (or a verb and a PP) can be modified by an adjective, and this adjective then behaves analogously to how an adverb behaves when it modifies a verb directly.

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  • I think there's some subtle differences in your examples. In particular, with the shower example, the adjective of 20-minute applies to shower, the noun, rather than the verb took. Similarly terrible applied to mistake rather than made. In my example "hell of a" or "good" applies to the verb, not the noun. In particular we could say "I took one hell of a shower", hell of a isn't affecting tool but shower instead. – Chris Feb 27 '15 at 11:27
  • But "one hell of a" modifies "dick" in the same way that "20-minute" modifies "shower" and in the same way that "terrible" modifies "mistake". In other words, "one hell of a" forms a constituent with "dick" before it does with "suck", just like "20-minute" forms a constituent with "shower" before it does with "took", and just like "terrible" forms a constituent with "mistake" before it does with "made". We can verify this with constituency tests. – Tim Osborne Feb 27 '15 at 12:52
  • I'm not so sure that one is really part of the expression. The indefinite article is also good. hell of a can also be found as helluva, but without a preceding article. The function of the expression is emphatic, rather than positive or negative. And I wish people would start to distinguish between category (adjective, adverb), and (prototypical) function (attributive, adverbial). The expression hell of a or helluva is not an adjective as such, but it certainly has attributive function. – Thomas Gross Feb 27 '15 at 15:47

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