By Bright Polyglot

2012-11-23 14:06:52 8 Comments

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?


@Laurel 2016-12-07 22:49:08

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

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

@LarsH 2018-03-31 03:04:09

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.

@Terry Li 2012-11-23 16:53:26

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.

@Bright Polyglot 2012-11-23 20:23:02

Thank you. That helped very much. He is too kind a guy to refuse. How established a technical writer is he?

@Bright Polyglot 2012-11-23 20:38:28

"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?

@Terry Li 2012-11-24 02:54:03

@BrightPolyglot "very" is fine while "such a poetic one" will do too.

@Bright Polyglot 2012-11-24 11:20:11

That means "also a so poetic one" is wrong?

@Terry Li 2012-11-24 11:42:09

@BrightPolyglot Yes I think so.

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