In English, an adjective is usually placed on the left side of the noun it describes. But there are some exceptional phrasings here and there.

I had so great a time.

The English present perfect tense probably evolved from being a statement about ownership.

I have a written book.

could be rearranged to

I have a book written.

and this slowly shifted focus away from "having" toward "writing" until it was eventually perceived to be a form of the verb "to write". As such the "written" would take the standard place in the verb cluster.

I have written a book.

This looks very much like the (admittedly a little constructed) first example.

I had written a book.
I had so great a time.

My questions are:

  • Is the structure where an adjective come before the article of the noun a leftover from a time when English sentence structure was more flexible? If not, where does it come from?

  • Is there any connection between the two sentence structures or is it just pure coincidence?

  • "I had such great a time" is certainly not idiomatic English. I doubt it's grammatical either. Nor would the corresponding "I had written such great a book" be acceptable to native speakers. Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 15:49
  • Do you realize that I have a book written is the correct word order in german?: "Ich habe ein Buch geschrieben." Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 16:03
  • @FumbleFingers.. I suspected that but I couldn't think of a proper example. I guess "He's such gentle a man" would work. I kind of forced it though to make the two versions look more similar.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 17:58
  • @PeterShor... German is my native language, so yeah, I did see that :). After all, German Perfekt and English present perfect were the same thing once. English just went for a different word order later on... and German for a different meaning.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 17:59
  • @Emanuel: No. The determiner such doesn't work like that - you need adverbial so. For example, "He's so gentle a man". If you want to use such it has to be "He's such a gentle man" (not that most people would "hear" those last two words as separate anyway - they'd invariably understand it as the single-word noun gentleman). Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 18:08

2 Answers 2


I doubt there is any historical connection. Perfect tenses are widespread in Indoeuropean languages and have roughly the same structure (i.e., a conjugated form of "to have" or "to be" together with a past participle of the main verb), but with widely varying word order. Adjective order also varies widely. In the romance languages, an adjective generally (but with many exceptions) follows the noun -- in Germanic languages such as English, the adjective generally precedes the noun. There are some idiomatic exceptions, typically for emphasis, as in your example "I had so great a time". There, the unusual word order draws more attention to "great" than the more usual "I had a great time." (And your sentence "I had such great a time" sounds simply wrong to me -- if I heard in conversation, I would guess the person who said it was not a native English speaker.)


"I had such a great time." sounds better.

"I had so great a time" is awkward, and leaves one slightly wondering, because "so great a time " can be construed as comparative, or at least correlative (as opposed to the implied superlative in the stressed SUCH in "SUCH a great time(!)", which almost cries out for an examation point); so the sentence with 'so' can seem incomplete. One might expect it to introduce some subordinate clause: "I had so great a time that I nearly forgot I had to pick up my daughter at her school." But even there, "such a great time " (with "such" unstressed) would fit.

The other part of the question (suggesting a link with verb tense development) is, as others have noted, irrelevant.

  • 2
    As a matter of fact, it was not the question in how far "such" is idiomatic and what the nuances of "so adjective a" were. You answered neither of my two questions. And not only that, but you disregard them as irrelevant. Maybe to you they are irrelevant, but the question where the bus stop is is irrelevant for a guy in a car, too. The relevance of a question is not yours to decide. -1 and flagged as "not an answer" because it clearly isn't.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 10:39
  • I did not mean your question was irrelevant. I should have said simply that your paired examples "I had written a book" and "I had so great a time" are not even similar, so their imagined similarity cannot even be a coincidence, let alone an indicator of something about verb tense history. Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 11:35

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