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Oscar Wilde — Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.

I would like to ask if I can paraphrase the first part of the aphorism without a change of the meaning into: Bigamy is having one wife in addition to that. The phrase "having one wife too many" seems to me a little bit unusual. Is it Wilde's licence or is it standard English?

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"One x too many" is a common English phrase meaning 1 more than whatever the appropriate number is. It is grammatical and clear. In your modified version, when you say "in addition to that", we don't know what "that" is referring to. The sentence stops making sense, which makes the reference back to that sentence in the second part of the aphorism also not make sense.

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  • I've also heard "One too many Xs" though I'm not sure which word order is more common. It's not something that's easy to n-gram since that requires having an actual noun.
    – Era
    Mar 18, 2016 at 20:46
  • Pulling an answer directly from my posterior, I'd say "One x too many" is probably an older construction with "One too many x's" being more popular now. Mar 18, 2016 at 20:48
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First of all, as you are undoubtedly aware, bigamy is being married to two women at the same time. In US law, this is illegal.

Wilde's definition of bigamy as "having one wife too many" is a perfectly normal and idiomatic way of expressing that you have more than the allowed number of something.

Starting out by saying "Bigamy is having one wife in addition to that" first of all leaves one wondering "In addition to what?" There is no referent for "that", so it doesn't make sense.

If you try to fix that by putting the "monogamy" definition first, then you completely destroy the humor of the statement.

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No, you can't rephrase it as "Bigamy is having one wife in addition to that", because there's nothing for "that" to refer to. An English speaker, hearing that sentence by itself, would say, "Having one wife in addition to what?" You could rephrase the sentence as "Bigamy is the condition of possessing one more wife than the proper number", if that helps you understand it better.

"Having one wife too many" is maybe a little bit of an unusual phrasing as a whole, but all of the parts are common enough.

Having is just a gerund, as in "Having a safe place to sleep is important" or "I like having a car."

I assume you know what "too many" means! "One X too many" is a way of saying, "one more X than the proper number". For example, if you asked someone to bring you five shirts, and they brought you six, you might say, "No, that's one shirt too many."

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    The phrasing is not grammatically unusual at all. It is only the subject-matter that makes it unusual. We can have one car too many, one dog too many, one midterm exam too many, one too many insurance policies, whatever. But otherwise your answer is fine.
    – TimR
    Mar 18, 2016 at 20:45
  • @TRomano - oh, it's fine grammatically, but virtually the only place this exact construct ever occurs is in this Wilde quote, which is what makes it unusual.
    – stangdon
    Mar 18, 2016 at 20:56
  • The construct "one {x} too many" is ubiquitous. It's only when x="wife" that it becomes rare. And the "is having" as a definition-suppyling construct is simply a variant to "{X} is when you have...". A burr-cut is having your hair cut very short.
    – TimR
    Mar 18, 2016 at 20:58
  • @stangdon 'I wrote a comment that had one too many characters, so I left the last period off, even though I know that's not proper punctuation.' Do I sound archaic or weird when I write that? How would you phrase it? Exceeded the character limit by one? That's kind of verbose, yeah?
    – ColleenV
    Mar 18, 2016 at 20:58
  • Consider also "one bridge too far". I don't think it's alluding to Wilde, and it's well understood. It may be infrequent, and "one character too many sounds too poetic to be used in casual writing, but as @stangdon writes it is grammatically correct. Mar 26, 2016 at 18:47

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