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To the Dutch, milk and cheese are staples, as essential a part of the weekly shop as rice is for a Chinese shopper or teabags are for an Englishman.

This is a sentence from an article on CNN. I don't understand why it is not "an essential part of the weekly shop".

Can you tell me about any rules or grammar in this phrase, please?

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Yes, you can add or drop the "a". I prefer the way it sounds with the "a", and it also connotes a slightly more specific meaning, since with the additional "a" they are comparing "this part - milk and cheese" with the other parts "teabags and/or rice". There is more to a well written sentence than its grammar, sometimes. The rhythm, cadence and sound of a phrase are occasionally of almost equal importance. – Msfolly Jan 20 at 12:25
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@Msfolly - I'm not sure if this is what you're suggesting, but "...staples, as essential part of the the weekly shop" isn't grammatical, and "...staples, as an essential part of the weekly shop as rice is..." doesn't match the as-as comparison. – stangdon Jan 20 at 13:09
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I've posted an answer to a related question once. Let me quote the related part again here:

14 adjectives (3): position after as, how, so, too
After as, how, so, too and this/that meaning so, adjectives go before a/an. This structure is common in a formal style.
​  as/how/so/too/this/that + adjective + a/an + noun
​  I have as good a voice as you.
​  ...

(Practical English Usage by Michael Swan)

It's a normal as ... as pattern as Stephie said.
What's probably not normal for many learners is the pattern adjective + a/an + noun.

But if we think about it, it's probably not that strange. For example, I'm sure that you're fine with this one: I have as many books as you (have). It could be a little tricky for learners when the noun inside of as ... as is singular, but It's just that we don't hear it as often as as + adjective + as (e.g., This book is as good as that book).

(To the Dutch, milk and cheese are) as essential a part of the weekly shop as rice is for a Chinese shopper or teabags are for an Englishman is perfectly grammatical in English.

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1  
Thanks, man. So much helpful for me. I want to be as good a English speaker as you (are). – Bling Jan 20 at 22:45

It's in fact a simple as -as comparison, comparing the role of milk and cheese in Dutch households to rice in Chinese and tea in English ones:

To the Dutch, milk and cheese are staples,
as essential a part of the weekly shop
as rice is for a Chinese shopper or teabags are for an Englishman.

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It is much clearer when you format it like that. I think CNN would have done better to make it multiple sentences and change some word order: "To the Dutch, milk and cheese are staples. During the weekly shop, they are as essential as rice for a Chinese shopper or teabags for an Englishman." – Stephen Ostermiller Jan 20 at 19:20

This is basically the equative construction "as X as Y", making a comparison with Y.

But when the element of X that is being compared is an adjective (in this case "essential") in order to apply the equative construction to it, it is moved to the front of the phrase (which would be "an essential part of the weekly shop", as you said) leaving "a part of the weekly shop" behind.

So the meaning is that milk and cheese are just as essential to a Dutch shopper as the other examples, in the context of "the weekly shop".

The construction "essential a part of the weekly shop" would not be grammatical unless introduced by a degree term ('as', 'so', 'more', 'less' etc).

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Wow. You are so intelligent. I always really appreciate for guys like you. I understand it approximately. Can you check an sentence that I've just made for my ensure? "My daughter is beautiful, as smart a student in the class as your son (is)." / "My daughter is beautiful, as the smartest student in the class, as your son (is)." I'm sure that first sentence is correct, but second one is not. I think I can use "as...as" when I use superative something. – Bling Jan 20 at 12:33
    
I think the first one is also not that perfect. Anyway, you really helped me a lot. I'm sleeping on tonight first, and thinking about it tomorrow. Thanks a lot! – Bling Jan 20 at 12:38
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You're right. Your second sentence is just about grammatical, but doesn't have that meaning (it's not comparing my daughter with your sun). The first one doesn't feel idiomatic, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, but it is grammatical. – Colin Fine Jan 20 at 12:38
    
Colin, I think I know what it is about Bling's first sentence that makes it sound a bit odd. In the CNN text about cheese and rice, the word "essential" restates and amplifies the meaning of "staples." Bling's example, in contrast, pairs up the unrelated ideas of "smart" and "beautiful." A more native-sounding statement would be something like "My daughter is brilliant, as smart a student as your son." Bling: maybe you already know this, but the word "staple" in English has multiple meanings. The meaning used in the CNN article is "a main or important item, especially a food." – M J Hartwell Jan 20 at 21:37

The two choices you have posed

as essential a part of
an essential part of

both basically mean the same thing, however the first may place more emphasis on the items themselves being essential, whereas the second groups the items together as an important part of a whole (weekly shopping)

With the first you get the clearer simile

milk and cheese (are) as essential as rice (is essential) or teabags (are essential)

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The two alternatives "To the Dutch, milk and cheese are as essential a part of the weekly shop as" or "To the Dutch, milk and cheese are an essential part of the weekly shop as", have corrected it – Peter Jan 20 at 13:56
    
I see. Thanks for the clarification. – Damkerng T. Jan 20 at 13:57

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