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Most grammarians are trying to analyze the big mess construction as a noun phrase, but it seems to me that the construction is actually headed by an adjective.

Mary was good

Here, "good" is a predicative adjective.

Mary was as good as Linda

"as...as" is an adverb of degree specifying how good she is. But there is still some ambiguity. She was as good at what?

Mary was as good a cook as Linda

Now the whole phrase "as good a cook as Linda" becomes what is known as the "big mess construction". But, it's my strong belief that the adjective good is the head of the phrase and not the noun cook.

The mysterious part in bold that defies all grammatical explanation can only consist of a noun with an indefinite article, and it only accompanies adverbs of degree, such as "too", "so", "as" etc .

Is it possible that the phrase in bold (a cook) is a complement of 'as' and other adverbs of degree that clarifies what Mary was as good at being?

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    This is called an Equative construction. They are complicated, both in meaning and in syntax. As...as is not an adverb of degree, btw; it's part of the equative construction, which is discussed here, and here, and here, among other places. Where did the term " the big mess construction" come from? – John Lawler Mar 17 '17 at 15:31
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    @ John Lawler Google "the big mess construction" and you'll find several academic papers on the subject. That's the only term I've come across for it. – William Mar 17 '17 at 15:39
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    @JohnLawler Also, the construction does not depend on the "equative" adverb "as...as". Mary could also be "too good a cook", "so good a cook", or "that good a cook". But "a cook" always accompanies some adverb that specifies to what degree she is good. – William Mar 17 '17 at 15:42
  • Thank you. I am enlightened. But it's a mess only for certain syntactic theories because it contradicts the predictions of the theories. All of these theories, by the way, have been considered obsolete for at least 30 years. – John Lawler Mar 17 '17 at 15:42
  • BTW, I wrote about BMC here. I'm not sure when it started, but it's at least as old as 1576. I remember reading some explanation, but all I remember is it didn't feel satisfying. I'll see if I can find it. – Laurel Mar 17 '17 at 16:05
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I think this pattern is best understood as an abbreviated form: Mary is as good (as) a cook as Linda.

If you choose to look at it this way then the statement is making a comparison of Linda and Mary only in terms of how well they cook: If you look at Mary as a cook and compare her with Linda as a cook, she is as good.

But they may well not be equal when it comes to driving, dancing and so on.

I should add, to avoid misunderstanding) that my use of the word "abbreviated" should not be taken to suggest that the form "Mary is as good as a cook as Linda" is well-formed English.

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    As far as I can tell from Google, nobody in the last two centuries has ever used the phrase "as good as a NOUN as". And one certainly shouldn't use it if one wants to be perceived as somebody who speaks English well. – Peter Shor Mar 17 '17 at 15:03
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    You misunderstood me. I was not for a moment suggesting that this pattern is or has been used. I suggested it simply as a way of understanding the grammar. – Kevin Mark Mar 17 '17 at 15:46
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    It would have been more considerate of me, for the sake of the many thoughtful users of this forum who are not native speakers of English, to specify that the form I purport to have been abbreviated is not actually well-formed English. It simply seems to me to illuminate (well) the grammatical issue here. – Kevin Mark Mar 17 '17 at 15:54
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    Hmm...It could be interpreted as an ellipsis or an abbreviated form of "as good (at being) a cook as Linda". – William Mar 17 '17 at 16:34
  • @William you beat me to it by 17 seconds.... – Hellion Mar 17 '17 at 16:34
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I’d not met The Big Mess Construction and I don’t think ‘Mary was as good a cook as Linda’ is it, nor close to it. Laurel’s elucidation seems much better and is well supported in all the definitions here, anyway:

http://www.academia.edu/17685402/The_Big_Mess_Construction_interactions_between_the_lexicon_and_constructions The so-called Big Mess Construction (BMC) exemplified in corpus examples ‘like It was [so] prominent a punctuation (*so a prominent punctuation) in the landscape’ is peculiar in that it has a predeterminer adjective followed by an NP with the indefinite article a/an. The BMC construction can be introduced only by a limited set of degree words like so, as, too, how, this, that, and so forth, as seen from ‘a somewhat underdeveloped country/*somewhat underdeveloped a country’ or ‘a very big house/*very big a house.’

http://web.stanford.edu/group/cslipublications/cslipublications/HPSG/2007/vaneynde.pdf

http://repository.essex.ac.uk/13639/

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=mqTumknor8kC&pg=PA198&lpg=PA198&dq=big+mess+berman&source=bl&ots=LR8WdParXs&sig=0cMwkHPob_lvIdAT1ZykpWOFi9U&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiJrr7-vfXSAhWCXhQKHaAYDPsQ6AEISTAH#v=onepage&q=mess&f=false

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=TzYkDQAAQBAJ&pg=PT18&lpg=PT18&dq=big+mess+construction&source=bl&ots=M77WhIk-Zi&sig=Hr_p50T2x-_4iaaQXBWkl8bgNrk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjxjPKVuvXSAhVL1xQKHZafCy4Q6AEITTAK#v=onepage&q=big%20mess%20construction&f=false

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/english-language-and-linguistics/article/div-classtitlethe-big-mess-construction-interactions-between-the-lexicon-and-constructionsa-hreffn1-ref-typefnspan-classsup1spanadiv/D45206A42B4A6255127FA55CE008CCAF#

https://pure.york.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/the-big-mess-construction(c04bb27f-56a6-4c85-a790-5265c8b718f6).html

John’s Equative construction seems all the explanation Mary’s skills could need. The construction might depend on the ‘equative adverb as...as’ if it did tell us Mary was ‘too good a cook’ or ‘so good…’ or ‘that good…’ or even ‘as good…’ with a single, self-containing ‘as’ but it doesn’t.

Comparing Mary’s abilities to Linda’s is not the same process as discretely defining how good a cook she is. Similar semantic results don’t make two different methods of achieving that result grammatically equivalent.

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