I’m embarrassing whenever I come across how clauses. The two meanings –– (i) used to express surprise, pleasure, etc. (ii) that, the fact that, the way that –– are especially confusing. Would you check which of the two do I have to pick up in next examples? Are there any patterns that I attend to?

  • It seems like the way in 5 can be replaced by how without semantic change.

1 The Potters knew very well what he and Petunia thought aboutthem and their kind.... He couldn't see how he and Petunia could get mixed up in anything that might be going on –– he yawned and turned over –– it couldn't affect them....

–– Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, p.8

2 There was a horrible smell in the kitchen the next morning when Harry went in for breakfast. It seemed to be coming from a large metal tub in the sink. He went to have a look. The tub was full of what looked like dirty rags swimming in gray water.

"What's this?" he asked Aunt Petunia. Her lips tightened as they always did if he dared to ask a question.

"Your new school uniform," she said.

Harry looked in the bowl again.

"Oh," he said, "I didn't realize it had to be so wet."

"Don’t be stupid," snapped Aunt Petunia. "I'm dyeing some of Dudley's old things gray for you. It'll look just like everyone else's when I've finished."

Harry seriously doubted this, but thought it best not to argue. He sat down at the table and tried not to think about how he was going to look on his first day at Stonewall High -- like he was wearing bits of old elephant skin, probably.

–– Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, p.33

3 Griphook unlocked the door. A lot of green smoke came billowing out, and as it cleared, Harry gasped. Inside were mounds of gold coins. Columns of silver. Heaps of little bronze Knuts.

"All yours," smiled Hagrid.

All Harry's –– it was incredible.The Dursleys couldn't have known about this or they'd have had it from him faster than blinking. How often had they complained how much Harry cost them to keep?

–– Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, p.75

4 Then she changed her desk into a pig and back again. They were all very impressed and couldn't wait to get started, but soon realized they weren't going to be changing the furniture into animals for a long time. After taking a lot of complicated notes, they were each given a match and started trying to turn it into a needle. By the end of the lesson, only Hermione Granger had made any difference to her match; Professor McGonagall showed the class how it had gone all silver and pointy and gave Hermione a rare smile.

–– Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, p.134

5 Malfoy had been even more unpleasant than usual since the Quidditch match. Disgusted that the Slytherins had lost, he had tried to get everyone laughing at how a wide-mouthed tree frog would be replacing Harry as Seeker next. Then he'd realized that nobody found this funny, because they were all so impressed at the way Harry had managed to stay on his bucking broomstick. So Malfoy, jealous and angry, had gone back to taunting Harry about having no proper family.

–– Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, p.195

6 “There’s this real Al Capone fear that they’re going to get our guys, not on marijuana, but on something else,” Mr. Edson said, referring to how Capone was eventually charged with tax evasion rather than criminal activity. - witioanry.org

7 Ron was fascinated by the fifty pence.

"Weird!" he said, 'What a shape! This is money?"

"You can keep it," said Harry, laughing at how pleased Ron was.

–– Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, p.200

8 "So the Stone's gone?" said Ron finally. "Flamel's just going to die?"

"That's what I said, but Dumbledore thinks that –– what was it? –– 'to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.’”

"I always said he was off his rocker," said Ron, looking quite impressed at how crazy his hero was.

–– Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, p.302

4 Answers 4


SUPPLEMENTAL to Damkerng T.'s answer:

The two “definitions” you offer exhibit a difference not of meaning but of use.

How indeed has two slightly different senses, which Damkerng T. discriminates nicely:

  • in what way ... or manner or by what means or method. In this sense how modifies a verb or clause.
  • to what extent ... or degree or level. In this sense how modifies an adjective or adverb.

There is some overlap, however. Consider this sentence:

I can't stand how he’s always bragging about his grades.

Here the how implies distaste for the extent of his bragging as well as its manner—how much or how often he brags as well as his self-satisfaction.

Consequently, in the present context it may be more useful to regard in what way as the primary sense, with a number of secondary senses (there are more, but these are the ones reflected in your examples):

  1. in what manner
  2. by what means or method
  3. by what events
  4. in what state or condition (with verbs of appearance)
  5. to what degree ... This ordinarily ‘modifies’ an adjective or adverb, but the sense is also apparent when it modifies a verb or clause, as in my ‘bragging’ example:

    I can't stand how5 he’s always bragging about his grades.

In any of these senses how may be deployed in two ways:

  • as an interrogative
    How1 did the kids behave today?
    How2 did you do that? 
    How3 did the fire start?
    How4 does Ryan look today?
    How5 old are you?
  • as the head of a free relative clause
    I was appalled at how1 the kids behaved today.
    Show me how2 you did that.
    The report explains how3 the fire started.
    Pretty beat up was how4 he looked to me.
    How5 old you are determines which class you compete in.

All of your examples are free relatives, and most reflect one of those uses:

   1 ... how3 he and Petunia could get mixed up ...
   2 ... how4 he was going to look ...
   3 ... how5 much Harry cost them ...
   7 ... how5 pleased Ron was ...
   8 ... how5 crazy his hero was

In free relative clauses, two of the secondary senses have evolved secondary uses.

  • How3 has taken on what OED 1, How, 10., calls a ‘weakened meaning’ (I would call it a ‘generalized’ meaning) equivalent to the complementizer that. Three of your examples reflect this use:

       4 ... how it had gone all silver and pointy
       5 ... how a wide-mouthed tree frog would be replacing Harry
       6 ... how Capone was eventually charged with tax evasion

  • How5 may be employed as an exclamation to call attention to the exciting or pleasing or dismaying degree of whatever-it-is is exhibited. This use may be identified by its syntactic role: it stands alone, not embedded as a constituent within a sentence, and it is usually written with an exclamation mark. This exclamative use is not represented in your examples, but any of the how5s could be recast as such an exclamation:

    How much Harry costs us!
    How pleased Ron is!
    How crazy Dumbledore is!

    It should perhaps be remarked that this use has been infrequent in US speech as far back as I can remember, and I suspect it had become a largely literary use long before that. American speakers are much more likely to embed such a free relative:

    I can’t believe how much Harry costs us!
    Just look at how pleased Ron is!
    I’m blown away by how crazy Dumbledore is!

except of course as a quotation standing as the object of he said or something of that sort. You may recall the ambiguity which arises when such a quotation is embedded, or apprarently embedded, in indirect discourse; we discussed that here.

  • I'm very much obliged to this long heartfelt article. This very question on about these very examples were about over a year long, and finally I got a light.
    – Listenever
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 0:12

Except for common phrases such as "How are you?" or "How was it?", which I believe most of the learners know the translations in their first language well, I use this trick to tell which sense I should use.

It is to choose between in what way and to what extent.

In my first language (Thai), we have different words for these two senses. (And, I suspect that you might have different words for these senses in Korean too.) This is perfectly helpful.

The fine contrast between the two senses can be found in the Usage notes of the Wiktionary link,

How good is it? means "To what extent is it good?", whereas How is it good? means "In what manner is it good?". Likewise, I know how good it is means "I know the extent to which it is good", whereas I know how it is good means "I know the manner in which it is good".

This explains why we interpret how [adj.] in the sense of to what extent, e.g., How kind of you to help! and most of how [clause] in the sense of in what way, e.g. He couldn't see how he and Petunia could get mixed up.

In your passages, the marked how's, except for how much (3), how pleased (7), and how crazy (8), should all be interpreted as in what way.

And yes, I agree that you can use how in the place of the way in "... they were all so impressed at the way Harry had managed to ..." (I believe that you can even drop that at too, i.e. "... they were all so impressed how Harry had managed to ...".)

  • You see (1),(2);(4),(5),(6) all are to be interpreted as ‘in what way’. But there seems some difference between the first two and the latter three. I don’t see any semantic blank in the latter how-clauses; I guess the first two can take adjunct or complement.I guess that’s the dividing criteria of adverb (in what manner) and conjunction (that, the fact/way that) in wiktionary, but I don’t find any grounds. You see snailboat see the how of 4 as a complementizer not an adverb.
    – Listenever
    Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 9:25
  • I agree with snailboat, especially that you can replace that how with that. In fact, I think (1),(2),(4),(5),(6) are all subordinate clauses, with how as the conjunction. You can replace these how's with either that or the way that. (In my first language, that and the way that in these cases mean the same thing, and I think you will have a mixed sense in your examples too.) Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 9:30

"How" can be changed to "the way" in all examples you mentioned, except for:

On page 75, "how much" is a two word phrase, refering to amounts.

they complained how much Harry cost

they complained about the amount of money that Harry cost

In the first example on page 109, "how" can be replaced by "the fact that".

laughing at how a wide-mouthed tree frog would

laughing at the fact that a wide-mouthed tree frog would

Again in the Capone example:

referring to how Capone was eventually

referring to the fact that Capone was eventually

These are a bit weirder:

laughing at how pleased Ron was.

impressed at how crazy his hero was.

These basically also mean "the amount of". There's no good replacement for these though.

I would rephrase it from

I'm delighted at how clean the floor is.

to something sort of like

The floor is so clean that I feel delighted about it.

to understand it better.

Unfortunately, "how" is one of those words that changes a lot depending on context. It takes a bit of memorization, I think. You'll get the hang of it.


All of the examples except 3 use how meaning "the way that" definition.

  1. Uncle Vernon doesn't see any way that his in-laws being wizards would affect the Dursleys.

  2. Harry is imagining the way that his uniform will look on him-- "like he was wearing bits of old elephant skin."

On 3, I think the confusion comes from the fact that "how" is being used as part of the phrase "how much." This is used to refer to an amount of money. In the example, Harry's relatives are always complaining about the amount of money they have to spend on Harry.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .