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A friend asked me the other day if the phrase 'not bad an attempt' is correct grammatically or not. It seems correct to me, but a bit strange at the same time. Could someone shed some light on this?

This is my first time asking a question here, so please bear with me.

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*Not bad an attempt is in fact not a grammatical noun phrase.

English noun phrases can have both articles and adjectives, but the articles have to come before the adjectives. An is an article and bad is an adjective. So the order has to be changed.

  • Not a bad attempt is a grammatical noun phrase.

Not bad is grammatical by itself, but only when it's a predicate adjective that follows an auxiliary verb, like

  • This attempt is not bad.

The not is part of the verb phrase is not bad here.

But in the ungrammatical *not bad an attempt, not bad doesn't form a constituent because it's not part of a verb phrase, and so there's no reason to move the adjective bad in front of the article an.

  • “the articles have to come before the adjectives”—What about the “big mess” construction (“not that good a review”)? – sumelic May 18 '18 at 19:23
  • It's a big mess, all right. That's a special construction; not that good a review is short for not a review as good as that; equatives and comparatives always have weird grammar. – John Lawler May 18 '18 at 20:09
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    In both of @FumbleFingers examples, the an effort/a price provides a reference for the dummy subject (which is elided in the second). As in the big mess example, rewording yields 'Still, this effort is not bad at all and would make one listen with care despite its several semi-sleepy qualities.' The adjective ahead of the determiner doesn't directly modify the following NP. Instead, it operates on the dummy subject, which transfers to the noun phrase. And the results aren't always the same. The owner is short/The owner is short a cook/The owner is a short cook. – Phil Sweet May 19 '18 at 14:57
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Devil's Advocate:

the ungrammatical not bad an X

paraphrasing @FumbleFingers:

I'm not going to argue with the linguistic competence of:

Still, this is not bad an effort at all and would make one listen with care despite its several semi-sleepy qualities.

and

Not bad a price considering the rarity of them and the fact that Adidas and Nike seem to be pricing their trainers for close to £100 these days.

Unusual phrasing, but certainly not unknown. And I quite like it.

I like it too ... not grammatical but used often, especially spoken. I do also acknowlege @WS2 :'it better slides off the tongue in constructions involving not too bad a(n) X'.

Google books is littered with not bad an.

He had not bad an opportunity of bringing the Bill in earlier.

So i say use it, knowing its un′gram·mat′i·cal′i·ty ... to add 'flavor' to the written and spoken English lexicon. I hope this is ... not bad an answer!

  • You've clarified my own feelings, so I can hardly deny you the upvote! But you might consider including a nod to @WS2's comment pointing out how much more easily it "slides off the tongue" in constructions involving not too bad a [try, time, whatever]. – FumbleFingers May 19 '18 at 17:33
  • @FumbleFingers - nod done. – lbf May 19 '18 at 17:50
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@junkquill "canonical" would not be the appropriate word. Part of standard written or spoken English would be the correct descriptor. The litmus test here is both what is in common parlance and what is sufficiently clear to be understood. "Not bad an attempt" is not colloquially or grammatically correct. When an adjective modifies a noun, the article is not typically placed between the adjective and the noun. The article will modify the adjective and noun together in agreement.

not bad an attempt also sounds in spoken English like a non-native construction, or only an afterthought at putting the idea together. In my opinion.

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    I tend to agree. This form comes into its own if you want to say "...not too bad an attempt", where "...not a too bad attempt" would be awkward and unidiomatic. – WS2 May 18 '18 at 18:10
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    Not too bad an answer, but not comprehensive, and lacking supporting evidence. – Edwin Ashworth May 18 '18 at 18:42
  • agree ... not bad an answer! – lbf May 18 '18 at 18:52
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    @WS2: I knew there was some closely-related variant that wasn't ridiculously uncommon, but I just couldn't think of it yesterday. Google Books claims 669 hits for had not too bad a, and a quick glance suggests most of them are for the specific construction being examined here. And I would just add that I have no sense whatsoever of this being something a non-native speaker might come up with. It seems to me something only a native speaker would ever be likely to use (rightly or wrongly by others' lights! :) – FumbleFingers May 19 '18 at 12:44
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    ...and never mind 669 hits for that one. Google Books claims over 3000 hits for not too bad of a (noun). Including that extra too makes all the diffference. – FumbleFingers May 19 '18 at 12:47

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