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What is the correct (Ooops, I'm afraid it's me again! rule-o-cratic French speaker), preferred, then, word order in a superlative?

"She booked the earliest flight she could back to London."

or

"She booked the earliest flight back to London she could."

Or neither, the sentence sounding awkward anyway… How would you put it then?

  • 2
    Both variants sound fine to me. That being said, semantically speaking "the earliest flight she could" comprises a single unit of meaning, so the version that doesn't break it up is marginally preferable in my ears. – Erik Kowal May 25 '14 at 20:05
  • But "the earliest flight back to London" is also a constituent, so that's marginally even up. – John Lawler May 25 '14 at 20:33
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As to rules, several have already applied in both of these sentences

  • She booked the earliest flight she could back to London.
  • She booked the earliest flight back to London she could.

To start with, let's put back most of the deleted words

  • She booked the earliest flight that she could book that goes back to London.
  • She booked the earliest flight that goes back to London that she could book.

Note that there are two relative clauses modifying flight

  • the earliest flight that she could book
  • the flight that goes back to London

They are both a result of the superlative construction, listing its two boundary conditions:

  1. she was able to book the flight
  2. the flight goes to London

Given these conditions, the superlative earliest refers solely to time of departure.

The order in which several relative clauses that modify the same antecedent may appear
in a sentence is open; this is a matter for the speaker's judgement, as usual.

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Both variants sound okay to me.

However, I would just rephrase them this way:

She booked the earliest return flight to (or for) London she could get.

She booked the earliest return flight she could get for (or to) London.

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  • It does sound better adding "get"! In my initial sentences, "could" on its own might suggest she has an influence on how early a flight leaves, as in "She did something as best she could.", which cannot be the case here. – user58319 May 26 '14 at 6:31

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