3

"I lost my eye in the line of duty. What do you think of that?" he said with a pride that made me all the angrier.
"I don't give a damn how you lost it as long as you keep it hidden."
(Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man)

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.
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

In the two how-clauses, it seems that ‘how’ takes an adverbial function in the clause and the whole how-clause has the nominal function as the object and the complement of preposition respectively. In this case, do you think these two functions at a time when you read these, or anything else process happens in your brains? (For my better understanding, would you let me know the ‘how’s’ meaning in the contexts?)

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    In both these examples how is (just about) replaceable by the way, but in #1 what way works better idiomatically, as does the way in which in #2. In other constructions ("How old are you?") it's more to what extent rather than by what method / in what way – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 3 '13 at 3:36
  • @FumbleFingers: One may also say that the first example has an "about" implied: "I don't give a damn about how you lost it...". Given that, "I don't give a damn about the way in which you lost it" works, which bears out your theory that "how" replaces "the way in which". – BobRodes Jul 4 '13 at 5:32
  • @BobRodes: I agree that native speakers naturally imagine the word "about" being implied before "the way" if we use that instead of "how" in #1, but I think that's just a quirk of grammar (in principle we could accept "about how" anyway). I'm just trying to get across to OP how we understand how in his two constructions, given that few of us naturally think in terms of "object" or "complement of preposition". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 4 '13 at 13:59
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This questions casts a spotlight on the futility of trying to pin such widely used words down to a particular "part of speech". The dictionaries will tell you that how is an "adverb" - perhaps an "interrogative adverb" or a "relative adverb" - but in these two instances how is neither of these. It is the head of what grammarians call free relative clauses. These clauses exhibit the following characteristics:

  1. They are headed by—what shall we call them? Particle seems to be replacing adverb as the stock wastebasket term, and at least does not invite any confusion with entirely unrelated uses, so—These phrases are headed by particles which in other contexts act as interrogatives: who, what, which, why, when, where, whether, how, or combinations of these with -ever. A brief and not entirely satisfying discussion of Free Relatives in McCawley 1998, 13.c., gives good reasons for identifying these particles with interrogatives, and less-good reasons for calling them relativizers.

  2. They act as noun phrases. As you say, the how clause in your second example acts as the object of the preposition at. In your first example, the how clause acts as the direct object of the phrasal verb give a damn. If this is confusing, substitute a more conventional verb and the structure becomes clear:

    I don't see how you lost it.
    It doesn't matter how you lost it.
    Don't tell me how you lost it.
    That's not how you lost it.

  3. They have the same internal structure as relative clauses, with the head particle seeming to stand for a term omitted from the remainder of the clause. This is why these clauses are characterized as relative. It is a singularly unhappy use of the term, since the heading particle is unrelated to any antecedent—which is why the clauses are further characterized as free, not "bound" to an antecedent.

The Comments by FumbleFingers and Bob Rodes discuss how to understand what how means here. The way in which works adequately, or the manner in which. But do not misunderstand their casual use of "replace". How does not "replace" these paraphrases or "stand for them". In both your examples how signifies an account or narrative of what was done rather than the way or manner in which it was done—as it is used, for example, in titles:

How the Camel Got His Hump
How Robin Hood Came to be an Outlaw
How Stella Got Her Groove Back


If anything, it's the other way around. How was already used in this way in Old English, long before Wh- relatives and pied piping came into the language.

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  • "replace" : Can I say that 'how' can be replaced by 'on that of how~"? – Listenever Jul 5 '13 at 0:45
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    @Listenever Not really. How doesn't "mean" anything so much as it signals the mode in which the clause "means". "How the Camel Got His Hump" is the title of a story in which the camel gets his hump. "I don't give a damn how you lost it" means "I'm not interested in the action of losing it, all I care about is that it is lost". – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 5 '13 at 1:35
  • How they call the structure is dependent upon, I guess, how they see the structure. (1) Downing calls it ‘Nominal Relatives’ by the clauses’ function. (2) They call it Free Relatives because there’s none antecedents.(MaCawley) (3) They call it Fused Relatives because the WH contains the meaning of antecedents. (Cambridge Grammar, p.1068) – Listenever Jul 5 '13 at 1:41
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    @No, because 1) a that clause would signify the fact of replacing, not the process or action 2) a that clause doesn't act as the object of a preposition. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 5 '13 at 1:50
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    @Listenever It can, but nobody would, because a) "action" here is a technical term drawn from dramatic criticism and b) how people say it is how. [But in b) the first how is FumbleFingers' "the way that".] It's just the idiom: you can surround it with paraphrases, but you can't hit it exactly. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 5 '13 at 2:17

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