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I'm unsure about the grammatically correct use of the word "both" in the following sentence.

The text currently reads:

This is a both natural and powerful thing

Which sounds weird to me. I think that:

This is both a natural and powerful thing

sounds better, but I'm not a 100% sure and as such hesitant to change the sentence.

Which is the correct version? Or are both sentences grammatically valid? If so, are there any subtle differences in their semantics (like in e.g., "fine with me" vs. "fine for me")?

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    "...both a natural and a powerful thing"... But "both" is filler and could be removed without any loss of meaning.
    – Marv Mills
    Jun 22, 2015 at 12:36
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    This is a [both natural and powerful] thing = This is [both a natural and a powerful]] thing Jun 22, 2015 at 14:31
  • @JohnLawler both is a predeterminer, so isn't it be wrong to put the central determiner - a - before a predeterminer - both? Apr 4, 2016 at 17:03
  • "Predeterminer" is not a fact, nor a rule, but somebody's label. You can't determine anything from an arbitrary label; certainly it won't help you determine wrong from right. Apr 4, 2016 at 17:37
  • @JohnLawler thanks, but one more thing I've observed it's very rare in COCA in such construction where a is before both. Apr 5, 2016 at 14:09

3 Answers 3

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You can avoid the problem by saying what is really behind your constructions:

This is a thing both natural and powerful.

But you might find this a phraseology too rhetorical and antiquated. It scans nicely, though.

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    That looks odd for adjectives which usually come before the noun. Perhaps "This thing is both natural and powerful" as an alternative
    – Henry
    Jun 22, 2015 at 13:31
  • Oh yes. I agree.
    – Margana
    Jun 22, 2015 at 13:40
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    No! Don't listen to Henry. "A thing both both natural and powerful" is a beautiful phrase because the phrasing is unusual. To only use the most obvious and everyday forms is akin to serving only boiled potatoes and no meat. Our lives will be the poorer for it.
    – mikeagg
    Jun 22, 2015 at 15:39
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    Agree with @mikeagg, with the caveat that it depends on context: what type of writing is this, what type of writer are you, what flows better in the overall structure of the prose and what sort of style is expected by your audience. In the wrong context, the first phrasing (which I also prefer absent other information) becomes flowery and, perhaps, a bit heavy.
    – Jason
    Jun 22, 2015 at 18:17
  • @mikeagg: I agree with you, too :-)
    – Margana
    Jun 22, 2015 at 18:44
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I believe both are technically grammatically valid, but I prefer the second, "both a," for a couple of reasons. First, as you say, it just sounds/looks better, perhaps simply because it's more often formulated with "both" first? I do think there's a slight semantic difference, too, or perhaps, better put, a difference in emphasis. Putting "both" directly after "is" emphasizes the sentence's focus on the description of the thing's dual nature, while putting "a" in between minutely breaks the rhetorical flow of the sentence, and to my eye throws a bit more weight onto the final "thing"--i.e. "This is a...thing."

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The meaning is slightly different here, even if it is just about emphasizing.

  1. This is a (pause) both natural and powerful thing.

  2. This is both (pause) a natural and powerful thing.

Imagine a discussion or talk about natural and/or powerful things. At the end of the discussion saying

  • the 1. sentence emphasizes what it is, "natural and powerful". In this case you could leave "both".

  • the 2. sentence emphassizes that it is "both". Here you could drop "a natural and powerful thing".

Of course this is a very little difference, but e.g. as the last sentence of a statement, this might tip the scales, if someone wants to point out the thing being both itself is most important, or it having the actual qualities.

In other contexts it might not matter at all, so there can but must not be a difference.

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