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He sang it in a melodious, quiet voice, with a river accent, and it was simple, just «I got a purty little girl, she’s sweet six-teen, she’s the purti-est thing you ever seen,» repeating it with other lines thrown in, all concerning how far he’d been and how he wished he could go back to her but he done lost her.(Jack Kerouac, On the Road)

Whenever I meet clauses with ‘how’s, I have no idea how to understand them. Would you let me know the ‘how’s in the case? (the first how seems to mean ‘to what extent’, the second ‘how much.’)

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    I think you got them both right. – haunted85 Jul 8 '13 at 10:06
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    I think this is a very interesting question, because as a native speaker I automatically parse both of those hows as they are meant to be understood, but I couldn't explain to you how I know. It would be interesting to figure out some useful guidelines for determining when which meaning applies. – WendiKidd Jul 8 '13 at 14:15
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The word "how" has three primary meanings:

  1. In what manner? Like, "How can I get across the river?" Answers might be to use a bridge or a boat. "How do I make a comment on Stackexchange?" Answers would explain what to type or what buttons to push.

  2. In what quantity or to what extent? Usually (maybe always) accompanied by words indicating the thing being measured. "How far is it to Paris?" Someone might answer "20 kilometers". "How heavy is this box?" Someone might reply, "40 pounds" or "I don't know but I couldn't pick it up." "How long do I have to wait?" "About ten minutes." Etc.

  3. In what status? "How are you feeling today?" That is, are you feeling well or are you feeling sick? "How is the battle going?" Is our side winning or are we losing?

Oh, perhaps I should add that there is a fourth meaning: "How" can be used as an intensifier or exclamation. But generally this is the same idea as one of the above three, just shifting from a question to an exclamation. "How tall you are!" "How far we have come!" "How the battle raged!"

As with any word with multiple meanings, you have to figure out which is meant from context. Usually only one meaning will make sense in context, though of course there are always cases where it could be ambiguous.

For example, some people say, "How are you doing?" as a greeting. The conventional answer is, "I'm fine, thank you" or "I'm fine. How are you?" A friend of mine liked to answer, "How am I doing what?" Yes, the joke got stale after the 300th repetition. But the idea was, the person asking meant "how" in the sense of "in what condition", are you well or are you ill? But he pretended to interpret it as "in what manner", like someone might ask "How are you doing this task?"

In your example, both "how"s are being used as intensifiers to indicate large extents or quantities. "How far" -- he had travelled very far. "How much" -- he wished very greatly.

  • Excellent answer, Jay. I was thinking about "I don't know how" and so on, and thought a little further explanation of that might be in order. In Jay's number 1, a very common construction is "I don't know how to get across the river, but I know how to make a comment on StackExchange. If you're willing to teach me how to get across the river, I'm willing to learn how." So, in cases like this, you are making a declarative statement about the "In what manner?" question, in some context that has to do with gaining or having knowledge of the thing to do. – BobRodes Jul 8 '13 at 15:26
  • @BobRodes Good point. "How" can be used in a declarative sentence also. I confess, I just forgot about that when writing my answer. – Jay Jul 8 '13 at 21:53
  • @jay, Thank you very much, and I want to add a question: can 'how' have the meaning of 'how well' in some context? if yes, would you show me a case? – Listenever Jul 9 '13 at 1:37
  • @Listenever Sure. I see that as an example of #2. Perhaps we need to clarify that "to what extent" doesn't have to be a physical measurement, it could be a measure of quality or intensity. You may note that I said you need a word or words to say what is being measured. That could be an abstract quality. Like, "How much do you love me?" "How good is Bob at driving?" "How well do you speak English?" "How stupid Fred is!" "Sally explained how important good manners are." Etc. – Jay Jul 9 '13 at 13:04
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"How far he'd been" in this context refers to distance travelled. That could be literal (if he had travelled a thousand miles), or metaphorical (if he his personality had changed a lot over a period of time).

The second how, in "how he wished he could go back to her" could be replaced with that, as in "he was thinking that he wished he could go back to her". It's probably better to use how in that sentence, but that might help you understand it better.

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