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I have in the recent past come across what seems to be a comparative structure, ‘as something as something else' for example, as tall as, or as good as. But the structure which is causing me a headache is the one which appears to have a noun in the middle, which goes against the general rules. The following are some examples:

-He is as good a footballer as the next. -She is as disruptive a person as...

And this little gem which I stumbled upon recently

- Ad blocking is as big a disruptor for us as the internet was when it came along.

The way I see it is that it is ok to say something like, ‘laughable a situation’ or, ‘unfortunate an occurrence.’ Yet it seems strange.

I have hunted, without any success, all over the net to find an answer. Can anyone tell me why this is possible?

Thanks guys

  • As .. as .. is called the Equative construction. It is related, as you suspect, to the Comparative more .. than .. and the Superlative the most .. of .. – John Lawler Nov 3 '15 at 16:11
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No, laughable a situation and the like are not grammatical.

The construction requires a qualifier of degree, for example:

too big a step

so distant a prospect

as heavy a load

Most instances are with one of these three words. I'm unsure about the grammaticality of the construction with more:

? More joyful an hour was never spent!

I think this works, but it feels literary and a bit archaic to me, and requires the inversion: I have never spent more joyful an hour. dousen't sound right.

  • Don't forget the most common example "How good a footballer is he?" And about 'more' I would say 'That is more open an architecture than ours?" loses to "That is a more open architecture than ours." So I think it only really works for the kind of qualifiers of degree that 'feel like prepositions' whatever grammatical category that selects. – jobermark Nov 4 '15 at 17:13
  • Your last example was presented to me in school as a notorious counterexample -- it was tolerated in its day, but was considered incorrect, even then. ngrams finds no written instances. – jobermark Nov 4 '15 at 17:19
  • Actually, GlowBE (the corpus of Web-based English) has 454 instances of "more [adjective] a/an [noun]", a third of them followed by "than", and a ninth of them preceded by "far". This contrasts with 953 for "too", 498 for "so", and 8304 for "as". So more is only a little less common than so in this construction. I didn't know it was notorious! – Colin Fine Nov 4 '15 at 19:20
  • More careful a man than I would need to see those to believe them.... – jobermark Nov 4 '15 at 19:43
  • But as it is, you are presuming there is no other cause for that construction. Outside of the context of a direct comparison, which kind of requires the followup, this is not necessarily the same thing at all. As I noted below, there are other constructs with <adjective> <article> <noun> unrelated to this one, and 'more' could easily just fall in front of one of those. – jobermark Nov 4 '15 at 19:50
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There are several grammatical points about this construction. Firstly, note that the adjective precedes the article here. The adjective is modifying a whole noun phrase, not a nominal ( a nominal is just the smaller phrase within a noun phrase that occurs after the determiners or articles). So we see:

  • as good a footballer

and not:

  • an as good footballer

Secondly you will have noticed that this adjective is itself modified by an adverb. Now this adverb must (a) be an adverb of degree and (b) must be a deictic word, in other words it is understood by reference to the immediate environment of the speaker, or through some other element of the discourse itself. Simply using a normal degree adverb will not work here:

  • *He was very good a footballer as ...
  • *He was extremely good a footballer that ...

The three adverbs that can be used here are so, too and as. Some grammarians have also included more, less and enough in this list, but the grammar of these adverbs is in fact significantly different.

The adverbs so, too and as are degree adverbs that cannot themselves give us any idea of actual degree or extent involved. We could think of them as a kind of 'pro - degree adverb'. These adverbs require some kind of benchmark for us to appreciate the actual degree involved. If this information is not provided by the context this normally entails there being a Complement phrase which indicates the actual extent or degree involved. We can consider such sentences in this way:

  • It was (X)big a problem [that we gave up the whole project]

Here (X) represents the degree involved. On its own (X) does not tell us the actual degree of the bigness of the problem. It is the clause in brackets which explains the actual extent of the size of the problem.

The adverb involved will dictate what kind of phrase or clause can function as the Complement. The adverb so can take preposition phrases headed by the preposition as or finite clauses typically using the subordinator that. In the sentence above the only possible adverb we could use instead of (X) is the adverb so.

The adverb as typically takes phrases headed by as. It cannot take clauses headed by that.

The adverb too takes to-infinitival clauses, headed by for if they include a Subject:

  • He was so big an idiot [that he wasn't allowed to speak in public without his advisors].
  • It was so forceful a blow [as to fell his opponent].
  • He is as great an actor [as has ever graced this stage].
  • He is as good a footballer [as the next]'
  • He was too valuable an asset [to let go].
  • It was too dangerous a project [for us to take it on].

The preposition as (as opposed to the degree adverb) introduces equality with what follows it. More precisely it indicates some kind of benchmark which is met or exceeded.

Notice that we cannot generally put adjectives before articles, the following are badly formed:

  • *big a footballer
  • *clever an idea

This only occurs when the adjective is being modified by an adverb. Why? I don't know. I've been looking into this for quite a long time but haven't been able to find out.

  • 1
    To your last question, it also happens when modals 'steal' the auxiliary verb "Prestigous the accommodations may have been, but that did not imply they were comfortable". We want 'So good is he (as) a footballer'. But we have to put the 'is he' somewhere else, either up front or with the modal verb, for clarity. So the adverb is not the key feature, but instead the need to have key words close together, or the need for the verb to appear elsewhere. – jobermark Nov 3 '15 at 16:41
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    I am not sure why this is so much more common than "He is a footballer as good as the next." except that we like emphatic adjectives in front of their nouns. – jobermark Nov 3 '15 at 16:46
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    @jobermark Sorry, I don't get what you're saying. Is there a modal somewhere in OP's examples? I don't really think it's the same as Subject auxiliary inversion at all. Whether or not you front a Predicative Complement with so, the adverb + adjective still needs to precede the article. – Araucaria Nov 4 '15 at 13:38
  • No, but you said in only happens in one situation, and I suggested another (very rare) one, which shows it is part of a broader notion. He asked if <adjective> <article> <noun> is grammatical. It is grammatical in at least these two contexts. – jobermark Nov 4 '15 at 17:12
  • No, @jobermark, I agree with Araucaria that this is a different construction, with a predicative adjective fronted. The fact that it generates the same (fragment of) surface structure is irrelevant. It is not a "broader notion". – Colin Fine Nov 5 '15 at 13:41
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If you take these apart a bit they unwind into something like

"He was so good a footballer that..."

"He was a footballer so good that..."

Which we say that way instead of

"He was such a good footballer that..."

We put he good with the 'so' or 'as' because those are adverbs that take an adjective, whereas 'such' is a pronoun which takes a noun as a reference. We often prefer the adverb form when we are emphasizing the adjective over the noun.

So yes, it often sounds overly formal, but the construction with the article after the adjective is sometimes called for when:

  • you want to keep the adjective and noun together; but
  • the adjective needs to be the nearest word to another word, or it needs to be first for extreme emphasis; and
  • the verb needs to be somewhere else for clarity.

Another construction where this happens is in mock-proverbs:

Laughable the situation might be, yet it has serious consequences.

Daft an old man may be, and still show wisdom.

The modal verb ('may' or 'might') wins the auxiliary verb ('be') and we end up with the adjective before the noun with nothing in between.

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