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In the examples of the two sentences below, after reformulating them to replace the adjectives with their corresponding nouns, do they still have the same meaning? Do these phrases sound too weird or unusual after this modification?

I'm always surprised to see how messy my wife's purse can be.
I'm always surprised to see how my wife's purse can be a mess.

You have no idea how problematic opening a company can be in our country.
You have no idea how to open a company in our country can be a problem.

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    The word how used before the adjective emphasizes that adjective (very messy, very problematic). But in your "noun-based" rephrasings it can't really be used like that (how there refers to the method by which something can occur or be done). I don't think there's a usefully "analysable" category of utterances that can be rephrased using a noun instead of an adjective for some important referent. Feb 1, 2023 at 14:21
  • Thank you very much. Only now do I realize the difference that the use of "how" has in each of the sentences. This led me to another question: if I replace "how" with "how much" will these sentences make sense? For example: You have no idea how much to open a company in our country can be a problem. Thanks again.
    – Itamar
    Feb 1, 2023 at 14:34
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    You have no idea how to open a company in our country can be a problem. should be: You have no idea how opening a company in our country can be a problem.
    – Lambie
    Feb 1, 2023 at 15:09
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    Itamar - YES - you're on the right track by introducing the word much there! The construction I know how much to be respected is important to you is "credible" to me, but I know how much being respected is important to you is better. We're more likely to say I know how important being respected is to you or I know how important it is to you to be respected, though. Feb 1, 2023 at 15:31
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    Heh heh. I find the word "problematic" to be a problem.
    – Boba Fit
    Feb 1, 2023 at 16:04

1 Answer 1

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Your reformulation from adjective to noun has actually changed the meaning slightly. This can best be seen if we reformulate the sentence in two different ways:

  1. I'm always surprised to see how messy my wife's purse can be.
  2. I'm always surprised to see how big a mess my wife's purse can be.
  3. I'm always surprised to see how my wife's purse can be a mess.

In sentence (1) I am surprised by the size or scale of the mess. In sentence (2) the reformulation keeps that meaning. But in sentence (3) the surprise is not that the mess is large, but that the mess is there at all. (For example: "How can anyone make a mess in such a small space as a purse?")

What's changed here is the focus of the word how. Before it was on the mess. Now it has switched to the purse.

The same switch of meaning and focus applies to the second pair of sentences.

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  • Thank you very much for clarifying in such detail the differences in the meaning of "how" in the examples provided. As I mentioned in another answer, would replacing "how" with "how much" be acceptable in English and somehow keep the same meaning? For example: "You have no idea how much to open a company in our country can be a problem." Thanks again.
    – Itamar
    Feb 1, 2023 at 14:42
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    "Much" is fine, but I still wouldn't change the word order. I'd say, "...how much of a problem opening a company in our country can be." Feb 1, 2023 at 14:53

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