My name was down for Eton, you know, I can't tell you how glad I am I came here instead.

I can probably get its meaning, but I'm not sure about its structure. I can easily understand: I can't tell you how gladly I came here instead. Why do we need to add "I am" in the middle? It doesn't look so grammatical to me. What kind of structure is it?

~ From Harry Potter.


It might help to add a "that" in the middle of the sentence:

I can't tell you how glad I am that I came here instead.

In this way you can see "I came here instead" is a subordinate clause of "how glad I am". Or think of it as two thoughts conjoined: "how glad I am" (a rhetorical phrase essentially meaning "I am very glad") and "I am glad I came here instead". The author could have just said:

I am very glad I came here instead.

But this is straightforward and dull. The "I can't tell you how X I am" adds character and nuance to the passage.

As you probably already know, it's common to omit these kind of relative pronouns when they are not absolutely necessary. Similar examples:

How lucky we are (that) you came along when you did.

The cave is so deep (that) you can't see the bottom.

  • Any effect that "when you did" has added to the whole sentence "How lucky we are (that) you came along when you did"?
    – dan
    Oct 29 '18 at 15:09
  • 1
    @dan Not really. It's mostly just adds a time frame to the expression, and suggests the speaker had some kind of urgent need. There are many expressions that could fit, "at that moment", "in the nick of time", "just when we were about to sink into the quicksand", etc.
    – Andrew
    Oct 29 '18 at 15:15
  • Isn't that a conjunction, not a pronoun in this context?
    – Kreiri
    Oct 29 '18 at 15:32
  • @Kreiri It's possible it is, but all that detailed grammar nomenclature stuff feels like "splitting hairs" to me. I found a reference that calls it a relative pronoun, but I'm happy to change it to "conjunction" if you can find a better reference to support that.
    – Andrew
    Oct 29 '18 at 15:35
  • 2
    It isn't a pronoun. It can go in the same slot sometimes (the man that/whom I was talking to) but it can't do all the things a pronoun can (the main about whom I was talking, but not about that I was talking). Modern treatments usually refer to it as a subordinator.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 29 '18 at 19:10


{I can't tell you} { {how glad I am} (that) {I came here instead} }.

{I can't tell you} { {how doubtful we are} (that) {the legislation will pass} }.

{I can't tell you} { {how surprised she was} (that) {she won the lottery} }.

The finite clause ending the sentences complements the middle expression, the how-clause.

That middle expression with its complement in turn complements the main clause, I can't tell you.

The meaning of this statement that "I can't tell you" is akin to "Words cannot express".

In other words:

I am very glad, glad beyond my ability to express my gladness.

We are very doubtful, doubtful beyond my ability to express our doubt.

She was very surprised, surprised beyond my ability to express her surprise.

The how-clause includes "I am" and "we are" and "she was" because "glad" and "doubtful" and "surprised" are not characteristic of the coming here or the legislation passing or winning the lottery; rather they are attitudes of the subject of the how-clause in relation to those events. Glad and doubtful and surprised are states of mind of "I" and "we" and "she", respectively.

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