11

You're too clever a man to imagine this.

The above sentence was said by George Galloway, a man of excellent rhetorical skills.

Since he said it, I doubt it's wrong, grammatically. But, I wonder if there is an explanation for this. Because adjectives always come after the article not before it. e.g. You're a clever man.

How could this be, grammatically?

9
  • 1
    You could also write that as: "You're too clever of a man." I imagine, in speaking those words, the "of" dropped off, leaving you with the above quotation. If you consider it that way, you could probably come up with numerous examples of parallel constructions. "It's not that type of a place." "We don't have that fun of a relationship."
    – tylerharms
    Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 14:32
  • 4
    @tylerharms. Do you have any authentic citations to support your claims about You're too clever of a man and We don't have that fun of a relationship? As a native speaker of English, I would never say either, and I have never seen or heard them. Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 16:25
  • 1
    @Barrie England: I agree those two (esp. the second) sound really clunky. But "too nice of a man" does occur, and doesn't really grind my gears too much. And I can't see any real grammatical issues distinguishing nice from clever. Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 18:32
  • 3
    @FumbleFingers. Too nice of a man seems very odd to me, and it must be rare. There are no records for it in the COCA, the BNC, the OED, or nGrams. Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 18:49
  • 2
    @tylerharms: In those examples it is "that noun of a ____", here it is "too adjective a ____". That might be where the difference lies. Certainly the phrase "too clever a man" seems completely natural to me.
    – neil
    Commented Jan 8, 2013 at 12:50

2 Answers 2

1

It is surely grammatical. I'm still trying to find some definitive reference on the web. Meanwhile, you may want to read this thread.

This page is helpful, but again I don't think it's definitive.

To me, sentences like He is a too/so big man are never correct. We need to restructure the sentence as He is too/so big a man. Alternatively, you can safely say He is such a big man.

5
  • 1
    Thank you. That helped very much. He is too kind a guy to refuse. How established a technical writer is he? Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 20:23
  • "Lull is not just an English word, but also a so poetic one." Yesterday, I wrote an essay in which I included the above sentence. I think, according to your answer, the sentence is wrong, and I should have used "very" instead of "so", right? Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 20:38
  • @BrightPolyglot "very" is fine while "such a poetic one" will do too.
    – Terry Li
    Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 2:54
  • That means "also a so poetic one" is wrong? Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 11:20
  • 1
    @BrightPolyglot Yes I think so.
    – Terry Li
    Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 11:42
11

This is an example of a Big Mess Construction:

  • This is too big a mess (for anyone to clear up).

You'll find the same format in a number of other cases:

a. She made too rude a remark (for me to repeat).
b. She made so rude a remark (that we were shocked).
c. I’ve never heard as rude a remark (as that).
d. He doesn’t look the type to make this rude a remark.
e. He doesn’t look the type to make that rude a remark.
f. I wonder how rude a remark she could have made.
g. Don’t be offended, however rude a remark she makes.

The Big Mess Construction

In every one of these, the adjective must come before the article for it to be grammatical.

There are numerous academic papers on the subject, but they're heavy with jargon and hard to summarize. In other words, the name fits.

The easiest explanation is: it's idiomatic.


It's actually been around for a long time. In an unrelated search, I discovered this quote from 1576 (via OED):

No man could be able to endure so colde, darke, and discomfortable a Nauigation.

— 1576 H. Gilbert Disc. Discov. New Passage Cataia vi. sig. E.iiijv

5
  • 2
    The linked paper sheds good light on the description of how this works grammatically. It's sometimes called "degree fronting," referring to the fact that words of degree (like too, so, or how) have to go before the determiner (a/an) rather than after; and they bring with them the adjectives they modify.
    – LarsH
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 3:04
  • Are {[Det quant] + [Adj comp] + [a] + [N]} ( [How] much longer a journey was it to your old job? and {[neg Particle] + [Adj comp] + [a] + [N]} structures (Theirs is no bigger a house than ours) structures included in the 'Big mess Constructions'? Commented Feb 1 at 19:20
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth The linked paper doesn't seem to mention either of those at all. I think it would be best to ask a new question or two about it.
    – Laurel
    Commented Feb 2 at 17:19
  • "Idiomatic" appears to be an unacceptable characterization: it is necessary, in order to apply this label to a construction, to determine that the meaning is not recoverable from the combination of the words in that construction. The same meaning results from the same words in "too rude a remark" and "a remark too rude".
    – LPH
    Commented Feb 3 at 0:39
  • @LPH "Idiomatic" here isn't a synonym for "idiom", but rather "natural", like something practiced over hundreds of years until it became second nature.
    – Laurel
    Commented Feb 3 at 0:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.