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In my English class yesterday we looked at the following example:

Monica is such a beautiful woman.

We learned that the above sentence could also be written as:

Monica is so beautiful a woman

I am wondering what the rule for this, to me unorthodox, placement of the article before "woman" is.

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Given your username I will assume you are Greek (sorry if you're not). The construct X is so Y a Z is the equivalent to the Greek X είναι τόσο Ψ που. –  terdon Jun 21 '13 at 14:06
    
@terdon yes I am Greek. In the example what represents Z in the Greek equivalent? I suppose "woman" but it doesn't make sense after "που". –  Sotiris Jun 22 '13 at 15:56
    
Monica is so beautiful a woman == Η Μόνικα είναι τόσο όμορφη γυναίκα. In both sentences, in order to stop there (though it is clumsy in English) you would need an exclamation mark. The only way that sentence makes sense is as an exclamation. Otherwise, in both languages you would need a qualifying cause, _Η Μόνικα (X) είναι τόσο όμορφη (Y) γυναίκα (Z) που όλοι την κοιτάνε. –  terdon Jun 23 '13 at 12:42

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Such and so are degree quantifiers.
Such goes before Noun Phrases and so goes before adjectives and adverbs; they're alternants.

  • She is so good [that she can make anything].
  • She is so good at carpentry [that she can make anything].
  • She is so good as a carpenter [that she can make anything].
  • She is so good a carpenter [that she can make anything].
  • She is such a good carpenter [that she can make anything].

However, they usually come equipped with a that clause to show just what the standard is for the comparison. That's the normal use.

It's also common in some idiolects to use emphasized so or such -- without a that clause -- as a general emotional intensifier, like very or extremely, but with emotional expression. This can be overdone, and is often satirized, especially when attributed to women. But this is conversational only, not written.

  • She's so intelligent. = She's extremely intelligent (and that impresses me).
  • He's such a cute little boy. = He's a very cute little boy (and I find that endearing).
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I am pretty sure your teacher said no such thing. The second sentence in your question is not grammatical or, at the very least, clumsy. What you can say is

Monica is so beautiful a woman that everyone looks at her whenever she walks by.

The construct X is so Y a Z is almost always accompanied by another clause, usually starting with that.


Some examples:

Herman Melville, Moby Dick:

‘Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar:

Caesar, now be still. I killed not thee with half so good a will.

Here, the qualifying clause is implied I killed not thee with half so good a will as I now kill myself.

The Scots Magazine, Volume IX:

Since that, the Duke of Parma besieged it in 1587, and found it, even in those days, so strong a place, that in his letters to Philip II. [sic] he complained...

Edmund Burke, The Works of Edmund Burke, Volume 2:

Nothing is so strong a tie of amity between nation and nation as correspondence in laws, customs, manners, and habits of life.

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Although I haven't had the chance of playing grammar games with a native speaker while growing up, I am under the impression that your example is not grammatically correct. As far as I know, the only correct construct is the first cited by the OP, even when the sentence is followed by another clause introduced by "that". –  Paola Jun 21 '13 at 14:30
    
+1 for Julius Caesar, my favorite among Shakespeare's works. –  Kaiser Octavius Jun 21 '13 at 15:07
    
@KaiserOctavius thanks, I only which I could claim to have quoted it from memory. Unfortunately, google was very significant an aid. –  terdon Jun 21 '13 at 15:09
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1) You need to provide the 'qualifying clause' for your Melville quote. 2) In the JC quote it's not 'killed someone else' but 'now kill myself'. –  StoneyB Jun 21 '13 at 15:17
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I think John Lawler covered it in his answer. He demonstrates how either case could be considered correct, whether used as a degree quantifier (with implicit or explicit that clause) or as an intensifier (informal). I don't think there's any evidence to conclude the teacher didn't bring this up. Whether is should be in ELL should be a comment. (-1 for now.) –  Canis Lupus Jun 21 '13 at 15:39

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