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Though it must be a plain statement for native English speakers, the captioned line in the Time magazine’s (February 25 – though a pretty belated subject) article titled “The Second Act” - http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2136322,00.html - puzzled me:

“Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, has worked in South America and is now ensconced in Rome as head of the extremely influential Congregation of Bishops, --. The Pope (Benedict) also made him president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. Like Benedict, Ouellet believes that the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council of 1962--65 were given too liberal a reading by many Catholics. However, he keeps a very low profile and is not particularly magnetic.

What does “The conclusions of the Second Vatican Council were given too liberal a reading by many Catholics” mean? Is this a clear-cut sentence to all Anglophones?

Is it mandatory to place the article (a) immediate before the noun / gerund (reading) as “too liberal a reading (by many Catholics)? If I take this line as “The conclusions of the Second Vatican Council were interpreted in a too liberal way by many Catholics,” am I making an egregious mistake?

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This extract would not be easy for many native English speakers to fully understand. One has to consider how many Catholics actually really studied the conclusions of the said Council, how well they understood all the implications, whether some rulings were enforced at local church level, and what 'too liberal' (liberal has a raft of senses) implies in this context. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 5 '13 at 8:26
    
@Edwin The OP is questioning the meaning of the uncommon grammar 'too X a Y', not the direction or application of liberality. –  Mitch Apr 5 '13 at 11:53
    
'a too liberal reading' is more informal, but both are somewhat difficult to process because of the stylistic elision...one understands 'too liberal than what'...which understanding is helped by knowing the domain knowledge that Vatican 2 was considered (plainly) a liberal direction of the Catholic church at that time. –  Mitch Apr 5 '13 at 11:57
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@Mitch: I wouldn't understand ?too liberal than what, and too liberal compared to what (answer: compared to the Church at the time of the Council) isn't really at issue here. The ambiguity I see is between 'interpreted it too freely, and missed the intended wording' or 'interpreted it in too modern or permissive a way'. –  TimLymington Apr 5 '13 at 12:34
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3 Answers

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If I take this line as “The conclusions of the Second Vatican Council gave a too liberal reading (interpretation) to many Catholics,” am I making an egregious mistake?

Yes, because the overly liberal interpretation (or "reading") here is was not the "given" by the Council, but by the "many Catholics".

In other words, a more accurate rewording would be:

“Many Catholics gave the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council a too-liberal reading.”

or, if you wanted to keep conclusions as the subject, you could change the preposition:

“The conclusions of the Second Vatican Council were given a too-liberal reading by many Catholics.”

I can understand why this might be hard to catch, because give is such a versatile verb with many diverse meanings. Andrew Leach's ultimate rewording expresses the thought much more clearly and concisely:

“Many Catholics interpreted the conclusions too liberally.”

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When an adjective is modified by "too," it's more common to put it before the article than after it. This is one of those things that never occurred to me before, and I can't think of a general rule to cover it. People say "too short a season," not "a too short season," etc. The same is true with "so" ("so long an opera"); there may be other short adverbs to which this applies, though I can't think of any right now. (Edit: Also "how." It seems to be short adverbs of degree to which this applies.)

With the large majority of adverbs, the article precedes them. You'd say "a very liberal reading" or "an implausibly liberal reading," and "very liberal a reading" would be wrong.

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You are correct that "reading" here is interpretation. But "were given" is a passive construction; to make that "gave" makes it active and turns things around. In an active sentence it would need to be "many Catholics" who were doing the giving.

We can transform and simplify the sentence like this—

The conclusions of the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65 were given too liberal a reading by many Catholics.

The conclusions of the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65 were given too liberal an interpretation by many Catholics.

Many Catholics gave the conclusions of the Council too liberal an interpretation.

Many Catholics interpreted the conclusions too liberally.

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