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They stood chatting together as easily and naturally as could be.

In my view, as in 'as happy etc as can/could be', 'be' is used because of the preceeding 'happy'.

But is 'be' used here because of 'chatting'?

Can we change the sentence to They stood ,chatting together as easily and naturally as they could. ?

With the comma, is it better to use they could than could be?

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    "as naturally as could be" does not mean "as naturally as they could". See Collins dictionary. Which meaning do you want?
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 8 at 9:43
  • @Stuart F Example in Collins is an adjective -happy, but in my question, it is an adverb-naturally.
    – Mr. Wang
    Commented May 8 at 9:51
  • as could be is an idiomatic construction.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 8 at 14:29
  • @Lambie So the first as is not necessary, right?
    – Mr. Wang
    Commented May 8 at 14:30
  • You have the definition from the Collins Dictionary, so what you do with it, is your problem. That definition does pair it with an adjective while you are pairing it with an adverb. But lose the comma, and be aware your two sentences mean different things,
    – Lambie
    Commented May 8 at 14:36

2 Answers 2

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The adverb/adjective distinction has no bearing on this question, and "as easily and naturally as they could" is not an accurate paraphrase of "as easy and naturally as could be".

In this statement

They stood there chatting (as) happy as could be.

[NOTE: The first "as" can be omitted in this colloquial construction.]

"happy as could be" means something like "blithely" or "very happily". as could be is like an emphatic, a kind of storytelling flourish. It does not refer to any limitation or restrictive condition imposed by circumstance; this is not the meaning:

They stood there chatting as happily as they could under the (oppressive, sad, worrisome, etc) circumstances.

Compare:

He lay there drooling, drunk as could be.

The man was was very inebriated.

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  • So , what is the subtle difference between 'happy/happily as could be' and 'as happily as they could'?
    – Mr. Wang
    Commented May 8 at 13:48
  • There is no subtle difference. They are nearly polar opposites. "as they could" implies some restriction upon them or some inherent limitation, whereas "as could be" is an intensifier.
    – TimR
    Commented May 8 at 13:49
  • They ran fast as could be ≠ They ran as fast as they could.
    – TimR
    Commented May 8 at 13:52
  • Please reread my comment above. I was adding an explanation as an afterthought.
    – TimR
    Commented May 8 at 13:53
  • So, in 'as soon as possible', is 'as possible' a limitation or an intensifier?
    – Mr. Wang
    Commented May 8 at 13:55
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I think this is a context where BrE is ahead of AmE. The construction as [ADJ] as could be is a quirky "frozen form" that's "syntactically weird". Brits have largely discarded it...

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...and I suggest learners do the same. You'll rarely hear young people using the form I was [as] happy as could be (it's a bit dated / literary / poetic / dialectal, to my ear). Plus of course, in some contexts, it's okay to say He's as happy as a pig in shit.

Note that there's no way to use the Larry version adverbially - it's always adjectival. By which I mean They chatted as naturally as Larry isn't remotely valid to anyone. Some people might not have a problem with adverbial They chatted as naturally as could be - I don't like that one myself, but maybe that's because I "parse" it like Larry.

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  • For my money (N.B., this is a native speaker of American English here) both as X as can be and as X as could be are entirely natural. But to my ear, here could is not the conditional, but rather the simple past. Thus, which of can and could I would use depends on context. In the OP’s example, since stood is past tense, I’d go with could. Commented May 8 at 12:30
  • @Paul Tanenbaum Is it natural for X to be with the part of speech of an adverb? –
    – Mr. Wang
    Commented May 8 at 13:18
  • @PaulTanenbaum: Yes, the could / can distinction really just turns on They stood / stand chatting... But as this chart shows, They were as happy as can be is far from unknown. That's why I think the internal syntax and semantics of the expression are "opaque" (which is a good reason to avoid it, if you're a learner, and there's a less tricky alternative available). Commented May 8 at 13:49
  • ...if even native Anglophones (at least some of them) are prepared to mix were and can like that, what chance do learners have of making sense of the usage? Not worth it, imho. Commented May 8 at 13:52
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    He was as nice as could be when he came round yesterday versus He is as nice as can be when he comes round here. would not be used by Brits? Why do you persist in using Ngrams to show spoken language? It's useless for that purpose. I agree with Paul on this.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 8 at 14:33

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