The Supreme Court overruled this decision a mere three years later. (source: Wikipedia)

Is using an indefinite article "a" to determine three years grammatical? If so, why? Also, is a used here as part of a collocation with "mere"? Can I replace mere with a different adjective?

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    See this and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston & Pullum 2002), p.352. – user3395 Jun 9 '18 at 13:39
  • @userr2684291 Very helpful. Thank you! I have just read Huddleston & Pullum 2002 p.352-354. I guess my example sentence falls under "dependents that select a singular or quantified plural head." A mere is not on the list, but I think it is comparable to a good. – Eddie Kal Jun 9 '18 at 15:46
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    Sure thing. And yes, that appears to be the case. If you read the accepted answer to the linked question, you'll find an article (Funky a) in which M. Liberman (a linguist) talks about this, and even they're not sure... Okay, I don't want to repeat stuff, so see chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/45067857#45067857. I summed up the bits I'm not sure about there. Hopefully that won't confuse you further. Oh, and, you'll find an article in which another linguist (a co-author of CGEL) tells us they don't know how to analyze article + adjective + name, about which you also asked. – user3395 Jun 9 '18 at 17:51
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    (There wasn't really a discussion there, just a bunch of links you should probably check out.) But anyway, read the whole thing in CGEL and some things will be clearer regarding determiners. – user3395 Jun 9 '18 at 17:57

The "a" goes with "mere", not with "three years" (and yes, it's grammatical).

You could replace "a mere" with "only" or "just":

The Supreme Court overruled this decision just three years later.

When used with small quantities, the indefinite article is often coupled with mere. Oxford Learner's Dictionary lists several examples:

  • It took her a mere 20 minutes to win.
  • A mere 2% of their budget was spent on publicity.
  • He seemed so young, a mere boy.
  • You've got the job. The interview will be a mere formality.

The word mere is not unique in this regard; the word paltry is often structured the same way:

  • This account offers a paltry 1% return on your investment.

Note: The article would not be used if merely was used in place of a mere:

It took her merely 20 minutes to arrive.

  • Thank you for the informative answer. I have heard "a mere 20 dollars", so I thought it might be case that a and mere go hand in hand. Just to clarify: is a still a determiner here? I now understand from your answer the indefinite article has everything to do with mere and not much with three years, but does it still determine three years? – Eddie Kal Jun 8 '18 at 23:04

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