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In "The Quiet American" by Graham Greene, Mr Fowler says:

I watched her closely while she asked how I was and touched my splinted leg and gave me her shoulder to lean on, as though one could lean with safety on so young a plant.

From what I learned in school, I would have written: "such a young plant", but apparently "so Adjective a Noun" is correct English.

What is the name of the construction above (if there is one)?
When is it used?

  • 3
    Such (a) Noun Phrase, but so Adjective a Noun. – John Lawler Sep 16 '14 at 22:19
7

I don't know if it has a formal name, but it's used not infrequently in more formal writing.

  • But his hand fell to his side as though he could not bear the exertion of even so small a gesture.
  • This is not so grand a gesture on my part. It is mostly an admission of defeat.
  • They said that it stood for “able,” so strong a woman was Hester Prynne.
  • The Master, weary from his own shower of blows, and fearing nothing from so weak a man, dropped his hand for an instant, and at that instant...
  • As such, their lifespans are ridiculously long for so tiny a creature: up to 30 years (if that doesn’t sound high to you, consider that British men in the Middle Ages had the same life expectancy, and probably did the same amount of toiling in mud). (of a naked mole rat, Wired, 9/12/14)

It's not an unusual construction, and carries a bit more impact than "such a _ _" because of it's less common construction.

7

The structure so + adjective is normally only found used predicatively, where it appears as the complement of a verb:

  • The music was so beautiful.

Here we see so beautiful appearing as the complement of the verb BE. We cannot usually use this structure attributively to modify a noun after the indefinite article, a, or when there is zero article:

  • It was so beautiful music. * (wrong)
  • It was a so beautiful song. * (wrong)

In these instances we need such instead of so:

  • It was such beautiful music.
  • It was such a beautiful song.

Notice that while so modifies the adjective, such modifies the whole noun phrase. We could just as easily use no adjective at all:

  • It was such a song!

Such then can be regarded as a strange kind of word (perhaps determiner, perhaps adverb, perhaps adjective), which modifies the whole Noun Phrase, including the article. Notice too that we say Such a beautiful song and not a such beautiful song. We cannot use such to grammatically modify an adjective in that way. Such definitely modifies noun phrases not adjectives.

However, an alternative way of achieving the same kind of effect as either of methods above is to use [so + adjective] before the indefinite article:

  • It was so beautiful a song ...

Here, in this position before the indefinite article, we can use the adverb so with an adjective. Here it is modifying the adjective beautiful. This time the adjective itself, very unusually, modifies the whole Noun Phrase including the article. This gives it quite a literary effect. It is not what we would regard as everyday, informal, conversational English although it is common in descriptive writing.

  • Does so here mean very or anything demonstrates many? i.e so big, so far, so long – SaidbakR Sep 28 '16 at 13:14
3

This appears to be a reordered construction of

... as though one could lean with safety on a plant that is so young.

So, in this sense means

Extremely; very much (used for emphasis): she looked so pretty

An alternative construction could be

... as though one could lean with safety on a plant so young.

In each case, the phrase is an adjectival modifier of plant.

2

I don't know where this grammar point is treated in grammars by English authors. I have to look it up. In grammars by German authors this is treated in the chapter definite and indefinite article.

Normally the word order is article + adjective + noun. In special cases English uses a different order: The definite article is in post-postion after all, both, double, half, quite, twice as in:

all the children, both your hands, double the amount, quite the best film, half the loaf, twice the length

The indefinite article is in post-position after half, quite, rather, such, what (exclamation) as in half a loaf (derived from: the half of a loaf), quite/rather a surprise, What a man!

The indefinite article is in post-position when adjectives are modified by as ...as, so, too, how, however as in

so difficult a task, too slow a run.

In the Longman Grammar of English by L.G. Alexander you find it only by using the register (too clever a man) and he has only one example and does not give a survey about this grammar point.

I have never seen a name for structures of the type "so young a girl", but I would put it in the box "special positions of adjectives".

protected by user140086 Dec 15 '16 at 10:30

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