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There is a construction rule I often find myself reaching for of the form:

so X a Y

Where "X" is an adjective and "Y" a noun. E.g.

I had never encountered so bold a claim

I am a native (British) English speaker, but I am unsure about the status of this kind of sentence. The indefinite article feels intuitively required to me, but I am unsure why. It also feels (again intuitively) slightly dated or artificial.

Could anyone tell me if this construction is grammatical and, if so, why the indefinite article is used? If it is grammatical, am I right to feel that it is a bit artificial? What would be a more natural replacement?

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    That sentence is perfectly grammatical. "so bold a claim," "so lovely a sunset." These are acceptable.
    – Steve
    Oct 29, 2021 at 17:35
  • It's a very useful form, but I would not be using it if I felt, as you say, that it's dated. See aforementioned, above-titled language. Oct 29, 2021 at 17:36
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    It's not uncommon, but I'm not sure what virtue it holds over "such a Y X." Oct 29, 2021 at 17:51
  • [headsmack]—I mean, "Such a X Y." Oct 29, 2021 at 18:16
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    There is, of course an alternative: "Such a bold man". 'Such is described in the Cambridge English dictionary as a predeterminer in this context and your example would fit the examples.
    – Tuffy
    Oct 29, 2021 at 18:44

1 Answer 1

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This usage is not only acceptable, it is standard, although not exclusive. The subject, for its essential, is treated in § 7.22 from A comprehensive grammar of the English language (Quirk et al.). It is a usage that the adverb "too" and "enough" also share.

(CoGEL) An adjective modified by enough, too, or so can be separated from its complementation if the modified adjective is placed before the indefinite (or zero) article of the noun phrase [8, 9]:

♦ She is brave enough a student to attempt the course. [8]
♦It was too boring a book to read. [9]

With enough, the construction is more common if the adjective is premodified by not, as in [8a]:

♦ She is not brave enough a student to attempt the course. [8a]
But with enough and too, this construction seems to be possible only if the adjective phrase is part of the subject complement or object complement (compare [8] and [8b]) :

♦ *Brave enough a student to attempt the course deserves to succeed. [8bl

With so, the construction is also possible if the adjective phrase is part of the subject or object [10]:

♦ A man so difficult to please must be hard to work with.
So difficult a man to please must be hard to work with.

Exceptionally, certain short prepositional phrases may also premodify an adjective in attributive position:
♦a by no means irresponsible action
~ an action (which is) by no means irresponsible

In the following couple of ngrams for the particular case "brave man" it can be deduced that the age old dominating usage of the separation has frittered away to become nowadays approximately equal in frequency to the regular usage. From the second and third ngrams, it is clear that usage is subject to certain vagaries.

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ngram "seen so brave a man,seen a man so brave"

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ngram "see so brave a man,see a man so brave"

Even in this case, I believe that using "seen so brave a man" could be felt as idiomatic.

The truth of the contention about "enough" and "too" relative to the use of "not" might be shaky, as the two ngrams below show that it is not so for two cases.

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The contention re the necessity of the adjective phrase being a part of the subject or object complement (and not the subject), is however, in my opinion, quite dependable ; I can't get a reference concerning that point.

There is hardly an alternative for "so bold a claim", unless one is ready to innovate, and apparently some do that.

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However, for other combinations, such as "a man so tall", it is different, and both possibilities are used with a frequency that differs little from that of the other ; "so tall a man" has taken the lead again recently, but after approximately 25 years of trailing behind.

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The artificiality is all relative in my opinion; the apparent aim in this change of order is first a more or less conscious intention to normalize the construction so as to have an adjective that precedes the noun (a claim so bold → a so bold claim). In doing so, the adverb separates unnaturally the article from the adjective and the noun; since it is natural to place the aticle right before the noun, doing so results in two natural blocks (so bold | a claim), and in the end the postposition of the block can be seen as equivalent to its anteposition (although, it not being usual and the order "article-adjective" being now reversed, there is a tendancy to find that artificial).

The article is still used because it is necessary to give the noun a determination, and when you want it to be indefinite, then "a" is the article. It allows, among other things, to delimit clearly a noun phrase as in "so white bread", which would often be ambiguous, and "so white a bread", where "bread" is immediately understood as countable (ref. 1, ref. 2).

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    The unremarkable I’ve never seen so bold a claim far more naturally alternates with the perfectly commonplace I’ve never seen such a bold claim than it does—nor ever has—with I’ve never seen a claim so bold. Run that triple as an ngram from 1800–2019 you’ll immediately see how the first two are neck and neck, but the third far behind. See here for more on how and why this happens. I think that source will interest you.
    – tchrist
    Oct 29, 2021 at 23:52
  • To my ears, both [8] and [8a] sound strange at best. I would always prefer these alternatives: She is a brave enough student to attempt the course. or She is a student brave enough to attempt the course. Is it just me?
    – listeneva
    Oct 30, 2021 at 1:49
  • @tchrist The third form, though, will be come in handy when followed by a that-clause or something, won't it?
    – listeneva
    Oct 30, 2021 at 1:59
  • @listeneva Yes, that's very much right: it does serve for those scenarios.
    – tchrist
    Oct 30, 2021 at 2:14

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