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I've identified a part of English speech where I always become stuck. Some examples will illustrate:

"He's as great a man as you will ever find." // Fine

"It's as good an option as you could hope for." // Fine

"It's as wise a decision you could've made in the circumstances." // Fine

I've looked this up and the words "man", "option" and "decision" are said to be the postcedents, and the first word of each sentence (which is a personal pronoun), are said to be cataphors. Confer anaphora and antecedent for opposites.

Now the problem arises (as I see it) if you try to use this same construction or pattern with the postcedent in each example in the plural form.

"They're as great [a] men as you will ever find."

"They're as good [an] options as you could hope for."

"They're as wise [a] decisions you could've made in the circumstances."

Whenever I find myself verbally walking down one of these paths, I get to the first indefinite article, and have to stop, all confused, and have to tread back to the start to reconstruct the sentence a different way.

Also, this doesn't just happen when using a pronoun. For example:

"The Chief Justice is as moral a man as you will find."

"The Supreme Court justices are as moral [a] men as you will find."

After thinking about it, I found that you can "cheat", so to speak, by forcing the thing referred to into a singular form. For example:

"They're as great a group of men as you will ever find."

"They're as good a set of options as you could hope for."

"They're as wise a group of decisions you could have made in the circumstances."

I know that this (as far as I know is acceptable), but what I'm really asking is whether you can complete the sentence without using this (hack or kludge), as I see it. In other words can you say:

"They're as great men as you will ever find."

I don't think you can. This has always bugged me.

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  • The plural forms as presented don't sound as good to me either. Turning the phrases around works better: e.g. the options are as good as you could hope for. – Lawrence Mar 21 '18 at 4:21
  • Sorry, Zebrafish… this is the first time in 50 years that I've understood the old joke: "Doctor, it hurts when I do this. Really? Then don't do that…" No problem arises except as you imagined it. To the extent that using that construction or pattern with the postcedent in any example causes a problem, don't do that. Simple semantics should stop any question of "They're as great men as you will ever find" because “they” can’t all be the one greatest. How could anything else matter? – Robbie Goodwin Apr 4 '18 at 21:38
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These sentences contain what is called the "Big Mess" construction*. It doesn't work with plural nouns because it requires the indefinite article:

In English noun phrases the determiner canonically precedes the prenominal adjectives, both the lexical and the phrasal ones.

(1) a. a big house
b. a very big house
(2) a. * big a house
b. * very big a house

A notable exception are the adjectival phrases which are introduced by as, so, too, how, this and that. When they occur in a nominal which contains the indefinite article, they precede the determiner (Huddleston and Pullum, 2002, 435).

(3) a. It’s so good a bargain I can’t resist buying it.
b. How serious a problem is it?
(4) a. * It’s a so good bargain I can’t resist buying it.
b. * A how serious problem is it?

This construction, for which Berman (1974) coined the term Big Mess Construction, only occurs in nominals with an indefinite article. It does not occur in nominals with another kind of determiner, as in (5a), nor in nominals without determiner, as in (5b).

("The Big Mess Construction", Frank Van Eynde, 2007. In Müller, Stefan (Ed.), Proceedings of the 14th International Conference on Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, Stanford Department of Linguistics and CSLI’s LinGO Lab, 415–433.)

So another way to rephrase is to move the adjective:

  • "They're men as great as you will ever find."

  • "They're options as good as you could hope for."

  • "They're decisions as wise as you could've made in the circumstances." (I'm guessing you left out a second as? It doesn't sound grammatical to me without one.)

However, although I would say that these sentences are grammatical, they don't sound very natural to me. I think I would actually rephrase by making the plural noun the subject, like this:

  • "These men are as great as you will ever find." (still sounds a bit awkward)

  • "These options are as good as you could hope for."

  • "Your decisions were as wise as they could have been in the circumstances."


*Some other questions about this construction:

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