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Could you explain why one of these sentences is grammatically preferable (if any)? Would you write the sentence in another way?

Our aim is to understand what and how the equipment measures specifically.

Our aim is to understand what specifically and how the equipment measures.

Our aim is to understand how the equipment measures what specifically.

Our aim is to understand what the equipment measures specifically and how.

Our aim is to understand what the equipment measures specifically and how it does that.

  • I think all versions are going to sound a bit strange because of the word specifically. If the writers don't even know what their equipment measures - let alone how it works - they actually know next to nothing. In which context it just seems odd to me that they should specifically be seeking to understand either the what or the how, since these are high-level things one would need to know before getting interested in any "specific" details. – FumbleFingers Oct 25 '18 at 12:54
  • Maybe some context will help @FumbleFingers. I'm using the word specifically because there are a group of possible things the equipment could measure, which one(s) and how we don't know. – gusmog Oct 25 '18 at 13:18
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The use of specifically here is unusual.

Specifically (and specific) can be used as a synonym for in detail or it can be used to ask for clarification about which thing of many is being referred to.

For example:

You haven't been clear on how you got from here to there. What did you do, specifically?

You've told about five things you like for breakfast. Which specific one would you like to eat this morning?

Neither of those apply in any of these sentences. Also, the use of specifically with how what and how have been combined makes the sentences a bit awkward.

If you don't know anything about a machine, you wouldn't know that it measures things in the first place. So, you might ask what it does, specifically, not how it does it or to what—although those details might emerge from a specific answer to what.


You asked if we would write the sentence in another way. You also provided clarification to the question in a comment by saying, "there are a group of possible things the equipment could measure."

I would say that a better phrasing would be something like the following:

Which of those things, specifically, does the equipment measure, and how does it do that?

Our aim is to understand which of those things, specifically, the equipment measures, and how it does so.

By adding "those things," the use of specifically makes more sense. So long as they have been mentioned previously, or its understood in some other way what they are, then the sentence is fine. (But if all we had to go on were the standalone sentence, then it wouldn't be clear what they were.)

You can express this in a more general way, but it will lack more context. It would also sound better if you used the variant of the word.

Our aim is to understand what specific things the equipment measures, and how it does so.

  • I see how awkward the use of specifically looks in the sentence, thank you. – gusmog Oct 26 '18 at 6:56
  • For the sake of understanding, let's suppose the question what and how are the equipment measuring? Would it be grammatically correct? Can I use what and how in that way? – gusmog Oct 26 '18 at 7:56
  • @gusmog That sentence would be okay if it were: What and how is the equipment measuring? But it would be more commonly phrased as: What is the equipment measuring and how is it doing it? – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Oct 26 '18 at 14:18
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Our aim is to understand what the equipment measures specifically and how.

Our aim is to understand what the equipment measures specifically and how it does that.

I would choose one of these two proposed sentences. The second sentence might be more appropriate in more formal situations such as a technical report.

I have two suggestions for further edits. I would have "specifically" follow "what" in both sentences, and I would use "so" rather than "that" in the last sentence.

Our aim is to understand what specifically the equipment measures and how.

Our aim is to understand what specifically the equipment measures and how it does so.

Placing "specifically" next to "what" emphasizes that you want to know the specifics of the thing or things being measured instead of wanting to know what thing or things the equipment can measure with great specificity. However, your meaning will likely be understood either way.

"That" has more of a connotation of describing a thing, whereas "so" implies a method of action. Both words can be used in the sentence, but I would say that "so" better fits the context.

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