In a grammar discussion, this following example sentence came up:

  1. "How long was spent on the job?"

Question #1: Would that sentence be acceptable as standard English to you? (AmE? BrE? etc.)

Question #2: And how would you parse its subject "How long"? And would you consider the subject to be:

  • a noun phrase (NP)
  • an adjective phrase (AdjP)
  • an adverb phrase (AdvP)
  • other

Question #3: And what word categories would the words "how" and "long" in that subject belong to?

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    I can't provide an answer, but I can tell you what I feel about it. Yes it's a standard one, at least it looks like to me. You can consider it as a NP, because long is also a noun. He spent two hours in office and He spent [how long] in the office Feb 21, 2015 at 4:36
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    AAAaaaarrrrrggghhhhhh. I'm still trying to do a noun post on the other side ..... +1 Great question .... Feb 21, 2015 at 10:09
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    @Man_From_India If you're asking why it's ungrammatical, I don't know, although I know it is. It might be because adverbs cannot modify nouns. But some of them can modify NPs. So for example we can have almost a full hour but we cannot have an almost hour. If long is an adverb, this would explain why. Feb 21, 2015 at 14:08
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    @Man_From_India Actually, thinking about it, we see the same pattern for adjectives modified by how too, so we see "how big a difference" instead of "a how big difference" Feb 21, 2015 at 18:49
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    As I'm too busy to write you an answer I though I'd try to summon one for you ;) Feb 23, 2015 at 18:46

5 Answers 5


(Native American English speaker here.)

Question #1

Yes, though it looks weird to me about 10% of the time. A little priming can overcome the weirdness:

"How much was spent on the job?"

"$128,400, sir."

"And how long was spent on the job?"

Question #2

I think the grammar is ambiguous in a way that doesn't matter.

  1. You could understand how long as an adverb phrase, if you think of spending (time) as an action modified by how long it takes.

  2. You could understand how long as an adjective phrase, if you think that spend has an implied object, time, and the question asks its length.

  3. You could understand how long as a noun phrase, for a couple reasons. First, every English sentence needs a subject, and it's hard to find a better candidate for the subject of this sentence than how long. Second, the expected answer is something like "Five hours were spent on the job." Five hours is unmistakably a noun phrase. In the question, how long is the placeholder that gets filled in by five hours in the answer.

So, you could say that how long "must" be a noun phrase since it occupies the slot filled in by a noun phrase in the answer, and it's the subject, or you could say it's a fill-in-the-blank adjective or adverb that stands in for a subject in the question, and gets filled in by a noun phrase that will be the subject in the answer.

There is a school of thought in linguistics* which requires that questions like this have a definite answer. Within this school of thought, different scientific theories of grammar are tested by their ability to supply crisp, mathematical categories to answer your question, which figure into purely syntactic rules that determine all possible English utterances. A theory would have to be rejected if its categories and rules disallow an utterance that native speakers find acceptable, or allow an utterance that native speakers find unacceptable. If it didn't even have an answer, it would scarcely count as a theory. I think this question suggests that all of those theories are wrong about something important, though they've certainly got some very important truth to them. What I think is wrong is the expectation of mathematical crispness.

Here's another way to look at "How long was spent on the job?" The meaning plus familiar phrases, familiar syntactic forms, and who-knows-how-many other psychological pressures make different kinds of answers easier or harder to think of and to hear as addressing the question. To illustrate, here are some more possible answers:

  • "Too long!" That seems to be an adjective phrase, but let's not go there. It's a familiar phrase, and its meaning is easy to make sense of in context. By echoing the word long, it seems to plug nicely into the original sentence. The rhythm perfectly matches how long. Echoing is a very important psychological pressure, which can lead a person to overlook the fact that other expectations about an answer weren't satisfied. Finally, spend too long is a familiar phrase, so this is a very reasonable answer.

  • "Too much!" sort of means the same thing, but isn't satisfying. How long in combination with spend asks for an amount of time, but spend too much suggests money rather than time, so the listener wonders if you're answering a different question.

  • "Too much time" and "too many hours" sort of work, but they're somewhat unsatisfying even though they directly answer the question and they work with spend. How long has a stereotyped answer: a measurement with units. The analogy with measurements of (spatial) length exerts some pressure. Neither of these answers delivers a measurement with units, so they're a little hard to hear as answers to the question--even though by general grammatical rules, not customs specific to the familiar phrase how long, both are unobjectionable.

So, my answer is: other, but not completely contradicting any of the first three options.

Question #3

Three-letter word and four-letter word. OK, OK, I'm sure that's not what you meant by "word categories". Adverb and adjective. If you really want to, you could say that how long is a noun phrase made of an adverb and an adjective.

* I don't want to blame this too strongly on Noam Chomsky, since many people think this way and thought this way long before him, and many people disagree with him about various details even as they subscribe to the theory that all grammar consists of mathematically crisp syntactic categories and rules.

  • You could understand how long as an adverbial phrase. <------ Do you mean "adverb phrase"? Or do you mean "an adverbial", as in an adjunct? Feb 21, 2015 at 10:12
  • @Araucaria Sorry, I'm not sure. I've avoided learning the finer points of this kind of terminology. (I've been spending way too much time on ELL as is!) Which should it be? I'll put it in. (Or help yourself.) The main point of my answer, though, is that it doesn't matter.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Feb 21, 2015 at 11:15
  • Well, "adverbial phrase" is a very poor term for a type of function or syntactic role, like subject, or object. It is used to refer to what H&P would call an Adjunct, in other words one of those extra bits in a verb phrase that isn't syntactically necessary. An "adverb phrase" is just a phrase like an adjective phrase, or a noun phrase, with an adverb as its head. An adverbial could be a preposition phrase, adverb phrase or so on and so forth. Feb 21, 2015 at 11:19
  • @Araucaria OK, I'll change it to "adverb phrase". That was how F.E. worded option #3, anyway. I only meant to make "adverb" into an adjective. (But I backed out on "adjectival": too unusual and too many syllables.) I think most people would have no idea that it makes a difference. I'm trying to come up with parallel examples, and so far the best I can think of is economics/economical, which isn't quite right.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Feb 21, 2015 at 11:30
  • @Araucaria Thinking over what you said some more, I'm no longer sure. The idea is that one could argue that how long should be understood by analogy with how quickly in "How quickly did you spend that money?" That hypothesis has problems, but the main idea of the answer is that any strict parsing will have problems because grammar doesn't work by strict rules.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Feb 21, 2015 at 12:19

Araucaria asks for ‘references’, so I’ve dutifully read everything that seemed to be relevant in CGEL. Dismayingly little of it was helpful; I quote a few passages primarily as jumping-off points for disagreement. The answer as a whole really came out of this article:

Ellen Dodge and Abby Wright, “Herds of Wildebeest, Flasks of Vodka, Heaps of Trouble: An Embodied Construction Grammar Approach to English Measure Phrases”, J. Larson and M. Paster (Eds.) Proceedings of the 28th Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society: 75-86.

It's not directly on topic, but it introduces an approach that inspired (or at least provoked) the following answer. The answer would probably be a lot better if I took six months off to get a handle on how Construction Grammar works; but the current need which Araucaria signals will presumably have expired by then.

"How long was spent on the job?"
Question #1: Would that sentence be acceptable as standard English to you?

Sure. The passive is sort of odd—it suggests a balding bureaucrat in round wire-rims wearing a standup collar and celluloid cuff-protectors, filling in a ledger with a fountain pen—but like Ben Kovitz, I can see it arising echoically.

Question #2: And how would you parse its subject "How long"? And would you consider the subject to be:

  • a noun phrase (NP)
  • an adjective phrase (AdjP)
  • an adverb phrase (AdvP)
  • other


Let’s start by clearing the landing-strip. There’s a tendency to categorize every Subject as an NP because of the old S → NP VP thing; but in fact practically any sort of syntactic entity can act as a Subject: an NP, a VP, an AdjP, an AdvP, a Clause, a PP. (Observe, while we’re at it, that all those categories describe the phrase’s internal structure; they are not suitable designations for its external syntactic function. I’ll take up the matter of internal structure in my answer in my answer to Question 3.)

In any case, is how long the Subject? That seems to be the position of CGEL; the discussion of ‘open interrogatives’ gives examples [4i] Who broke the window? and [4ii] Which one did he choose?, and comments

In [4i] the interrogative phrase is subject and occupies the same position as the subject of a declarative (*Kim broke the window). In [4ii] the interrogative phrase is a non-subject in prenuclear position: we say that the interrogative phrase has been fronted. (p.856)

But earlier, when introducing the notion of prenucleus, CGEL takes a more stringent attitude. There they compare the ‘canonical’ sentence [4a] Liz bought the watch with its ‘non-canonical’ (interrogative and subordinate) use in [4b] I wonder what Liz bought and offer these diagrams:

enter image description here

They comment:

In [b] what precedes the subject in what we call the prenucleus position: it is followed by the nucleus, which is realised by a clause with the familiar subject–predicate sructure. Withinn this nuclear clause there is no overt object present. But the prenuclear what is understood as object, and this excludes the possibility of inserting a (direct) object after bought: I wonder what Liz bought a watch. We represent this by having the object realized by a gap, an abstract element that is co-indexed with what (i.e. annotated with the same subscript index, here ‘i’): this device indicates that while what is in prenuclear position, it also functions in a secondary or derivative sense as object of bought.
 Note that it would not be satisfactory to replace the ‘prenucleus’ label by ‘object’, and then simply dispense with the object element on the right of bought. Functions, we have said, are relational concepts and ‘object’ is a relation between an NP and a VP construction. Directly labelling what as object would not show that it is the object of the VP headed by bought.

That strikes me as —I won’t call it weaseling, but certainly waffling springs to mind. It is the object, except it isn’t, really, except in some sort of ‘secondary or derivative sense’.

And I have to wonder why a displaced object leaves a ‘gap’, but a displaced subject doesn’t.

I don’t think CGEL goes far enough. I’m going to adapt (not adopt) their terminology and pretty pictures; but I’m going to suggest that a) the ‘prenuclear’ element is not the object of the verb but a cataphor which takes the ‘gap’ as its postcedent, and b the ‘gap’ is not an ‘abstract’ element but something which is actually missing, videlicet the answer to the question.

How long has two functions, closely related but not entirely inseparable:

  1. Externally (to the clause, not to the phrase itself), how long marks what follows as a specific sort of illocutionary act: a question. (In fact I will argue presently that it is the Head of an interrogative clause.) I’ve never encountered a term for this syntactic role, so I’m going to invent one of my own: interrogator. Since How long is a phrase we should identify it as such, as an “interrogator phrase”; but IP is already in use for “inflectional phrase”, so we need a distinct abbreviation ... I’ll call this an I?P.

    (If this approach catches on we’ll be able to call the corresponding function in imperatives an I!P. )

  2. Internally (again, to the clause), how long is a ‘pro-form’, a cataphor which a) alerts the hearer to the gap and b) constrains the sort of response the hearer can employ to fill that gap. Here’s how I diagram the clause, following CGEL’s conventions:
    enter image description here

    How long is not the Subject, but a pointer to the Subject of a subordinate clause; in itself, as interrogator, it is the head of the Interrogation Clause. (Not “interrogative clause”—according to CGEL’s admirable paradigm I should reserve the term interrogative for a lexical category.)

I offer these points as informal evidence for this analysis:

But what kind of form is how long a pro-form of? ... Well, what sort of forms can we stick in the gap? The ‘canonical’ complement of spend is an NP: two months, 157 hours. That would make how long a pronoun—except that there’s a bunch of other things that can go there. Ben Kovitz puts what certainly looks like an AdjP there, “too long”. Perhaps you find that frivolous, but how about “three weeks long”? —a little odd, maybe, in the passive, but not in the active. And PPs are certainly acceptable: from April to June, since March. —But of course I’ve already pointed out that we should be looking at function, not internal structure: do these various constituent types serve a common and commonly recognized syntactical function? CGEL provides a couple of candidates; neither is formally defined or accorded a formal status, but the terms occur often enough to latch on to.

  • One is measure phrase: a phrase which provides a measurement. The ‘core’ type for measure phrases is probably the plain NP (six inches, two pounds, a bucketful), but genitive NPs (one day’s, a pound’s worth), PPs (from Ghent to Aix, between forty and fifty), AdjPs (*six feet tall, ) and comparatives are also possible (bigger than life, as long as your arm).

  • The other is locative. This category consists primarily of PPs, but includes NPs (home, next door) and Adverbs (north, right), too. Traditional grammar usually classifies these expressions as ‘adverbials’, but they are just as likely to act as adjuncts and predicate complements to nouns, or as complements to verbs. CGEL devotes some 30 pages of its chapter on Adjuncts to “Adjuncts and complements expressing location and change of location” in both space and time (and metaphorical extensions of these categories). The rubric “location and change of location” also embraces notions of direction, orientation and extension. That last is what I think how long is pointing to and demanding: an expression signifying temporal extension. And CGEL also acknowledges locatives which involve scalar position and change, such as She increased her philosophy mark from 70% to 85%, so we can pull in the notion of measure phrase as well.

My answer, then, to Question #2: How long is a pro-locative of scalar temporal extension acting as an interrogator. I think that ranges how long neatly beside her sister pro-locative interrogators when, where, whence and whither on one side and her sister scalar interrogators how much, how many, how big and many many more on the other.

In fact, I believe that this is the core function of PPs; and I’m coming to suspect that PP and locative are so closely related that perhaps ‘preposition’ should be renamed ‘locator’. But I’m not ready to argue that yet.

Question #3: And what word categories would the words "how" and "long" in that subject belong to?

I’d just as soon skip this question. Since nowadays a) we’re pretty much agreed that ‘word classes’ or ‘parts of speech’ or ‘lexical categories’ are defined by morphology on the one hand and syntactical role on the other, and b) just about any English word can be recategorized at will, I don’t really see what the categories are good for outside of a particular syntactic analysis. But here goes.

Given the syntactic analysis above, I don’t see how how can be placed in any category but interrogative—a term I intend to have the same relationship to ‘interrogator’ as determinative has in the CGEL scheme to determiner. The questions that raises—whether how it is still an ‘interrogator’ in fused relatives, and whether what we ordinarily call ‘relative pronouns’ should also be categorized as interrogatives—I will leave for another occasion.

As for long ... CGEL says the long in how long is an adverb:

Adverbial long, as in It won't last long, has a temporal meaning: "a long time". Its distribution is quite exceptional for an adverb, in that it can head phrases functioning as internal complement to a few verbs such as take, have, need, spend, give, and be:
ii a. How long can you give me?

The [bolded] phrases are functionally comparable to NPs: compare [...] How much time can you give me?; I won't be *more than ten minutes**. It is nevertheless clear from the dependents of long [...] how) that it is an adverb, not a noun. Notice, moreover, that such AdvPs cannot replace temporal NPs in subject function: A long time / Long had passed since their last meeting (except, somewhat marginally, in passives – How long was spent on the job?). (p. 569)

My problem with CGEL’s analysis is that it takes how to be an adverbial degree modifier of the phrase head:

[How old] is your father?      [modifier of adjective]
[How many] children have they got? [modifier of degree determinative]

How modifies adjectives, degree determinatives, adverbs, and verbs to question degree, extent, quantity.

I cannot agree. I compare how long not with two feet long or two hours long but with how big, how much, how far, &c; I take how to be the head of the I?P, and long to be a modifier which defines the category in which how demands that the answer be cast.

ADDED to meet Araucaria's request for evidence:

Well, I did a crash course in X-bar theory (a form of generative analysis in which strict binary branching plays much the same role as strict circular motion does in Ptolemaic astronomy), and it seems that in its terms I got it about 75% right. I leave my original analysis in place as evidence of my hybris.

According to that school of analysis, How long does, as I suggested, lie outside the clause headed by was, and it does leave a 'trace’ (which is what CGEL calls a ‘gap’). It lies, specifically, in an entity called a CP; etymologically this derives from ‘complement phrase’, and it is posited so the grammar may represent all sorts of non-canonical finite clauses—not only wh- questions but also relative constructions and that and for complement clauses—within the same framework.

However, How long is not the head of the CP but its specifier, which is a hypernym for entities as diverse as complementizers, subjects, determiners and auxiliary verbs. And the clause headed by was is not a sister of the specifier but an entity three nodes down. Here's a diagram, as near as I can figure it, but with a bunch of uninformative epicycles omitted:

enter image description here
[t1], coindexed with How long, is the gap. The unrealized [C] is there to accommodate the auxiliary if subject/auxiliary inversion is called for. [IP] (<‘inflection phrase') is where the subject (or one of them) and [I'] (tense) reside; tense will eventually move down or up to the auxiliary or lexical verb.

Note that [C'], the head which How long ‘specifies’, is not a “real" entity, a ‘lexical head’, but an “abstract" entity, a ‘functional head’— I’m counting my head that as a moral victory.

My main source for this stuff is Thinking Syntactically by Liliane Haegeman (Blackwell, 2006), a syntax textbook written from a Minimalist point of view.

As for ‘how long’ as a pro-form ... ‘Interrogative pro-form’ is a common designation for the wh- terms in questions; see for instance the SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms s.v. “What is a wh-question?” and “What is an interrogative pro-form?”. Granted, Trotta, Wh-clauses in English, rejects this characterization on the grounds that “it is not substituting for any item (40)”; but he also concedes that “even wh- interrogative words can be understood as pro-forms in the (loose) sense proposed by Quirk et al (1985: 77) in having ‘...a meaning something like “It has not been known before what this item refers to, and so it needs to be stated in full”’ (102).” I’m perfectly happy with this ‘loose’ sense; I see no practical difference between looking for a present referent (an antecedent or postcedent) assumed to be present and an absent referent (a gap) assumed to be absent.

In fact, most of this is beside the point. My original analysis rested on the parsing problem: hearers/readers don't have a diagram in front of them, and when they encounter an interrogator they set out looking for a gap to plug it into. If there’s no gap, they’ll never be able to fit it anywhere.

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    can you give us some evidencey kind of stuff, do you reckon? :-) Feb 27, 2015 at 1:27
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    i.e. examply stuff? Feb 27, 2015 at 1:30
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    Hmm, Are "North" and "South" adverbs for H&P? - and what about "home" and "next door"? Feb 27, 2015 at 14:59
  • I'm not sure I understand your point, but like Ben Kovitz, I can see it arising echoically Ben suggested some alternative answers arising echoically... not the original question. ? Mar 1, 2015 at 13:30
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    @Araucaria I very much appreciate this reference. My own take on the parasitism thing is that these constructions are at the margin of syntactic acceptability and should be analyzed as pragmatic improvisations, sort of like carving a chicken with a screwdriver - it can be done, but the results will not be pretty. I think Great Mother English would really rather we found other ways of saying them. Apr 8, 2015 at 20:32

How long was spent on the job?
Would that sentence be acceptable as standard English to you? (AmE? BrE? etc.)

Normally we [AmE] hear:

How much time was spent on the problem?
How long did you work on the problem?

Spent wants a countable noun or a wad of it, a much-ness. Work wants a span.

I worked long and hard on this problem.
I worked weeks on this problem.
I spent long on this problem. [not OK]
I spent weeks on this problem.
I spent time on this problem.
I spent a long time on this problem.

There is also a transitive / intransitive issue going on that affects the passive form.

How long was spent on this problem? [not OK]
How much time was spent on this problem? [OK]
How long did you spend on this problem [OK]
How much was spent on the repair. [OK]

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    If "How long was spent on this problem?" is not OK, how would you ask it if you didn't know who worked on it or you didn't want to mention them?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Feb 21, 2015 at 12:39
  • Also, what's your opinion on "I spent too long on this problem"?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Feb 21, 2015 at 12:40
  • We're typing simultaneously, Ben. I spent too long on this problem is fine. If I didn't know who worked, and needed to form the passive: How much time was spent on this problem?
    – TimR
    Feb 21, 2015 at 12:41
  • Interesting. I also hear "I spent long on this problem" as at the boundary of ungrammaticality, but "I spent too long on this problem" as perfectly normal.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Feb 21, 2015 at 12:43

I don't know how long a time I have to spend on answering this, but I can contribute a little of my research. I do believe the phrase originated from usages similar how long a time as used in my prior sentence, which were more common in years past. It's quite difficult to easily tease out this information due to various limitations of free online corpora and Google Ngram, but the following sheds some light:

enter image description here (Google Ngram: how long a time,how long *_VERB, 1660-2008)

Notice that, historically, the noun phrase how long a time compares very favorably with what "should be" more fundamental constructs how long **verb**. Some data can be seen in more detail here:

The idea of time as a quantity that can be spent, like money, has been on the increase enter image description here

To see some interesting phrasing laid out very well by year, click long collocates with spent within 4 words and then click on the word "spent" to get an giant overview of various popular phrases throughout history.

So it might make sense that "How long a time did you spend [doing something | being somewhere]" was shortened to "How long did you spend [doing something | being somewhere]" and then "How long was [some activity]".

Another interesting fact is that while English speakers talk about duration in terms of lengths (long, short), Greeks talk about them in terms of amounts. (Lera Boroditsky, How Languages Construct Time. In an experiment, English and Greek speakers were tested on estimating duration of events while being distracted by information related to spatial lengths and quantity amounts. As expected the spatial distractions reduced the English speakers ability to estimate duration while the quantity/amount distractions did similarly for the Greeks.


This sounds awkward and grammatically incorrect to me, because "how long" is an adverb phrase. I would say: "How much time was spent on the job?"

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