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I have a question.

I work as an EFL teacher and I came across this sentence in a cloze exercise about a shark attack.

"It just goes to show you what perfect predators they really are."

A number of students wrote

"It just goes to show you how perfect predators they really are."

Now, I understand that what is clearly correct and that how sounds and looks wrong, but I can't really explain why (and as a teacher, I would like to).

If the noun was singular, you could re-write it as

"It just goes to show you how perfect of a predator the shark is."

I know this structure is commonly used, even though I'm not certain as to how accepted it is. At any rate, I don't believe I've ever heard it used with a plural noun. Would it be possible? If so, how?

Thanks for your help.

  • C: Demonstrates the perfect predators they are. – paparazzo Oct 5 '16 at 18:21
  • You don't need the preposition of in the last example, and you can get rid of a lot of other clutter: "It shows how perfect a predator the shark is." – Mick Oct 5 '16 at 18:28
  • The mistake may be because the students native language allows stating 'they are perfect predators' as 'perfect predators they are'. – amI Oct 5 '16 at 18:35
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    There's a possible explanation in Practical English Usage by Michael Swan: 14 adjectives (3): position after as, how, so, too. ("as/how/so/too/this/that + adjective + a/an + noun" ... "The structure is not possible without a/an.") I quoted the entry in my old answer here: ell.stackexchange.com/a/22354/3281 – Damkerng T. Oct 6 '16 at 16:48
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In the first sentence "What" functions as a pronoun and is the object of are. It restates "perfect predators."

In the second sentence "how" is an adverb, but it's trying to modify "predator," a noun. Adverbs can't modify nouns.

In the "singular sentence," how functions as an adverb modifying perfect, an adjective. This adverbs can do.

  • I agree with your first two statements, but are you sure about the third? "How perfect of a predator," doesn't read well at all. – Rory Alsop Oct 5 '16 at 17:34
  • @Rory Alsop It is "of" that is off. "How perfect a predator is the cat." – ab2 Oct 5 '16 at 20:54
  • @RoryAlsop I think it is Am Eng but not Br Eng (and maybe only OK in certain regions of the US - I'm not sure. I've certainly noticed American friends and colleagues using that construct but would never use it myself. – Vicky Oct 5 '16 at 20:55
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It just goes to show you how they really are perfect predators.

That is a sentence that you want your students to be able to understand and produce.

"How" is an adverb.  "What" is an adjective.*  Those words have different relationships to the clauses which contain them.

Let's start with a simple independent clause in canonical word order:

they really are perfect predators

 

Adjectives modify nouns and noun phrases.  We could modify "perfect predators" with an adjective like "such":

they really are such perfect predators

More relevantly, we could almost modify that phrase with an adjective like "what":

*they really are what perfect predators

The "what" isn't happy with being stuck in the middle of the clause.  This is especially true if we're going to use it to make the clause subordinate.  We need to move the entire phrase containing "what" to the start of the clause:

what perfect predators they really are

 

Adverbs don't modify nouns and noun phrases.  They modify verbs, adjectives, and possibly entire clauses.  We can't modify "perfect predators" with "how".

We could modify just "perfect" with an adverb like "very" or "how":

they really are very perfect predators
*they really are how perfect predators

Unfortunately, now we're stuck.  Since "how" modifies only "perfect", we want to move "how perfect" to the start of the clause.  Since "how perfect" modifies "predators", we don't want to split them up.

If we do move just "how perfect", we end up with something else:

how perfect [that] they really are predators

The result is more naturally parsed as containing a contact clause, and it expresses an entirely different meaning.

If we use another method to separate "how perfect" and "predators", we have something that can be understood:

they really are very perfect as predators
how perfect they really are as predators

 

On the other hand, "how" could modify the verb or the entire clause.  This is even simpler than the case where it modifies an adjective inside a noun phrase:

they really are perfect predators in some manner
*they really are perfect predators how
how they really are perfect predators

 

The most obvious difference between

what perfect predators they really are

and

how they really are perfect predators

is that the "what" can carry its entire noun phrase to the beginning of the clause, but "how" doesn't carry anything beyond itself.  "What" is an adjective, and it needs the thing that it modifies to follow closely behind.  "How" is an adverb, and it can modify a verb from a considerable distance.

_______________ 

* "What" is also a pronoun, but it's a pronoun in the way that many adjectives are.

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