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Mrs. Dursley pretended she didn't have a sister, because her sister and her good-for-nothing husband were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be.

This is from Harry Potter. I know the meaning of the sentence and what I really care about is the part as unDursleyish as it was possible to be. I want to compare the difference between these three versions:

  1. as unDursleyish as possible
  2. as unDursleyish as it was possible
  3. as unDursleyish as it was possible to be

Question 1: Do they mean the same thing?

Question 2: What does the to be in #3 mean? Because there are 2 to be (was & to be) in the same sentence, what's the difference in meaning between them? It really confuses me to end a sentence with to be where there is another one already in the same sentence.

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  • They mean the same - but as ever, you should take it for granted that JK Rowling is a competent writer. It's more or less certain that in any context where something could be expressed in several different ways, Rowling's choice will be the best one. After all, that's precisely why she's such a successful author. Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 14:52
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers While I broadly agree with you about Rowling's writing, the inference 'successful author > competent writer' doesn't always hold – Dan Brown's novels were extremely successful and led to blockbuster movies, but his writing is widely mocked as terrible (telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/…; Google the headline to find the text elsewhere).
    – dbmag9
    Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 20:37
  • @dbmag9: I haven't read Dan Brown, but I wouldn't necessarily trust some hack at the Telegraph to tell me whether he writes well or not. And I've just discovered that he's "former high-school English teacher", so I think it's probably fair to say that anyone who comes to ELL seeking help learning English would have no reason to be here in the first place if they were as articulate as he. And I really don't care how many factual inaccuracies that Telegraph hack manages to find in Brown's writing. It's fiction, fer crissakes! Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 19:01

2 Answers 2

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I overlap with Lifelong Learner's conclusions about #1 and #3 vis-à-vis intentionality. #1 seems intentional, and #3 seems passive. The same holds true for other adjectives:

You're as cruel as possible. [You choose to be cruel]

You're as cruel as it's possible to be. [Your nature is to be cruel]


However, I would rule out #2 as not only "very odd", but "probably wrong".

If we rearrange the sentence, we'd get:

*It was possible unDursleyish

We definitely need another "to be" in there:

It was possible to be unDursleyish

Rearranging this back gives us #3:

As unDursleyish as it was possible to be

I think it's the expletive subject "it" that triggers this requirement, because you can definitely say

As unDursleyish as was possible

And this would mean the same as #3.

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  • Your rearranging makes a lot of sense to me, thanks! So the first to be, i.e. was, supports possible, where the second to be is for unDursleyish, right? I'm trying to apply your method to another sentence from Animal Farm, just to make sure I understand your rearranging: The animals were happy as they had never conceived it possible to be. I'd rewrite it as: The animals had never conceived it possible to be happy. Am I right? :)
    – preachers
    Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 14:23
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    Nearly, @preachers, but your paraphrase misses the comparison. The animals had never conceived it possible to be as happy (as this/as they were now).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 14:28
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These don't mean quite the same thing, but could be understood to be the same by some readers.

  1. as unDursleyish as possible

This implies that Mrs Dursley' sister and her husband were intentionally being as unDursleyish as they could.

  1. as UnDursleyish as it was possible

This sounds very odd as a native British English speaker. Including it was suggests that the level of 'UnDursleyish-ness' would vary according to the prevailing conditions at the time, again imlpying that this was intentional.

  1. As UnDursleyish as it was possible to be

In this example the inclusion of the to be indicates that this was not an intentional act, it was the intrinsic nature of Mrs Dursley's sister and her husband.

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  • Thanks for your answer, the 1st question is quite clear now. I don't quite understand the inner logic in #3, however. It seems that the existence of to be raises the level of the possibility to the highest. What does the to be exactly mean? Can you show me the corresponding entry in a dictionary or is possible to be a set phrase/idiomatic expression?
    – preachers
    Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 13:38
  • @preachers My intuition is that without "as it was possible to be", the one remaining "to be" in "They were as unDursleyish as possible" reads like a main verb instead of a copula. The main verb "to be" means "to behave, to act"; compare the imperative: "Stop being so polite!" which only makes sense as something you could choose to do or not do if "to be" is the main verb. Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 13:44
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    If you look up "be" in the dictionary I am sure you will find something similar to "dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/be" - a permanent (or sometimes temporary) quality or state. "I am Andy" is one of the examples. My reading of the phrase is that this implies an intrinsic nature which explains the unDursleyishness. We might say that they were 'polar opposites' to the Dursleys. Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 13:49
  • I think the reason #2 sounds odd is because it is ungrammatical.
    – d_b
    Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 0:39

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