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Are "A + ADJECTIVE + NUMBER + NOUN" and "NUMBER + ADJECTIVE + NOUN" interchangeable?
If not, then what is the difference between them?

For example (a-variants are from stackexchange.com; b-variants are mine):

(1a) He weighed a whopping twenty-five stones.
(1b) He weighed twenty-five whopping stones.

(2a) We spent a wonderful three weeks in Greece.
(2b) We spent three wonderful weeks in Greece.

(3a) He had collected a good many books.
(3b) He had collected many good books.

(4a) She waited a full three minutes before speaking.
(4b) She waited three full minutes before speaking.

(5a) It had been an exciting two years for Alice.
(5b) It had been two exciting years for Alice.

(6a) Ted had an exhausting two days in Denver.
(6b) Ted had two exhausting days in Denver.

(7a) It costs a mere twenty dollars.
(7b) It costs twenty mere dollars.

3 Answers 3

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There are at least three different structures that can result in "a/an" + adjective + number + noun on the surface.

The first structure is in your examples 1a and 7a. With that structure, the noun after the number is optional if it's understood from the context:

She weighed sixteen stone, and he weighed a whopping twenty-five.

The adjective modifies the full noun phrase, including the number. The (b) versions may accidentally be semantically correct if by luck the adjective happens to modify that noun naturally, but it won't be the same meaning. 1b is weird because a "stone" is a standard unit of measure, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to refer to them as "whopping". Similarly, "dollars" have a fixed value, so you cannot have "twenty mere dollars", unless you're disappointed that you merely got dollars, rather than, say British Pounds, and not disappointed with the number twenty.

The second structure is in your examples 2a, 4a, 5a and 6a. It requires the noun to be a unit of time, weeks/minutes/years/days/etc. With this structure, the adjective modifies the unit of time only. The meaning of versions (a) and (b) are the same, but (a) sounds more formal or literary, and (b) sounds more natural or casual.

The structure in example 3a is a fixed phrase [ "a good/great many" + noun ]. If you move the parts around, it breaks the phrase and the meaning necessarily changes. 3a means he had a large collection of books of unknown quality. By chance, "good" applies well to "books", so 3b happens to mean he had many books that were good quality.

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  • "a great/good many" can be used with "of" (e.g. "a good many of us"). Can "a + adjective + specific number" be used with "of" too? (e.g. "a mere three of us" or something else)? Thanks.
    – Loviii
    Oct 24, 2023 at 2:59
  • @Loviii Yes, and that sentence is fine too
    – gotube
    Oct 24, 2023 at 6:12
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There are cases where they are more-or-less the same, and cases where they are not.

the "full ten bottles" form is emphasizing that there are indeed ten bottles, while "ten full bottles" indicates that the bottles are full.

Cases where they are more-or-less the same include 1 and 2. In 1a it might be there is some emphasis on the person's overall size while in 1b the comment is on how large a stone is as a measure.

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In two of these examples, the adjective is suggesting the writer's or speaker's view of the quantity stated. This is a bit idiomatic; someone should describe it better if they know. Your rearrangements of those examples make them nonsense. Specifically:

1a. He weighed a whopping twenty-five stones.

This means he weighed 25 stones, which is a lot. Here a stone is a unit of mass/weight equal to 6.35 kg.

1b. He weighed twenty-five whopping stones.

A stone (weight) is a stone, you don't give it descriptors like whopping. One example of a unit of weight being modified is the ton, which can be a short ton, long ton, or metric ton. Those are all different quantities! But a stone is just 14 pounds. We don't have different kinds of stones.

Similarly

7a. It costs a mere twenty dollars.

It costs $20, and that's a really good/low/cheap price for the item.

7b. It costs twenty mere dollars.

Again, that doesn't mean anything. A dollar might be Canadian or Australian, those are different units, but a mere dollar is not a particular kind of dollar.

In one of your examples the rearrangement changes the meaning slightly:

3a. He had collected a good many books.
3b. He had collected many good books.

In the original, good is adding extra emphasis to many, and isn't judging whether the books were good or bad. In your rearrangement, it means that many of the books he collected are good books.

In the title example, "full ten bottles" is stressing that there were ten as opposed to only eight bottles or nine bottles. In contrast "ten full bottles" is stressing that all of the bottles are full.

For the rest of your examples, the (a) and (b) versions have identical meanings. It's interesting to note they all involve time.

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