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The eighth episode of HBO's Game of Thrones series aired last night, and it was another fine one, full of wit and high drama. One particular scene in the episode, though, prompted an English language question in my mind that stuck with me. In the dialogue, one character, in fear for his life, but known for his wit, puns on the meaning of the sentence:

How would you like to die?

by replying, "in my bed, at the age of eighty, belly full of wine..." so as to mean in what manner would you like to die? However, that's not the only way the sentence can be interpreted — his accoster obviously meant it in the sense do you want to die?

My question is: What is how doing there? It seems almost superfluous; I can't see how the meaning changes from asking would you like to die? Is there a grammatical term for its function in the sentence in that first meaning?

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The simple answer is it depends on whether How means In what manner, or How much (on a scale of 1 to 10). The latter case is perfectly common usage, and I don't really see much reason to worry about whether an utterance would mean the same if you just dropped the How [much] completely. –  FumbleFingers Jun 6 '11 at 18:45
    
I think to clarify your question further, it is "How would you like to die?" as in "How would you like it if you were to die?" (As Cerberus says, how referring to degree in this case) in contrast to "In what manner would you like to die?" –  KitFox Jun 6 '11 at 18:50
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5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

This is a peculiarity of the verb to like: the adverb how can be used to indicate the degree to which one would like something, which is not the way how is normally used with other verbs. You could say it is short for how much would you like to die?.

This "degree" is mostly merely rhetorical or polite: hypothetical how (much) would you like to be a member of our club? usually means the same as simply would you like to be a member of our club?. It is mainly used with proposals.

Your example how would you like to die? can mean two things, analogous to how would you like to have your breakfast this morning (manner)? and how would you like to come with me (rhetorical degree)?

  1. How much would you like to die, i.e. would you like to die? [usually a rhetorical question, which is really an announcement rather than a question]

  2. In what manner would you like to die?

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+1: When a waiter asks "How did you like your meal?" he's not asking the question "In what manner did you like your meal?" but "How much did you like your meal?" –  Peter Shor Jun 6 '11 at 18:59
    
To expand on my comment a little bit, in this case the "How" is not superfluous, because if a waiter asks "Did you like your meal?" he is implicitly suggesting that there's a reasonable chance that you didn't like it, while "How did you like your meal?" does not make this implicit suggestion. Of course, this isn't an issue for the question in the Game of Thrones episode. –  Peter Shor Jun 8 '11 at 13:01
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+1 To @Cerberus. @Peter. Question: "How would you like your eggs this Morning?". Answer: One of many possible ways of cooking eggs. Question: "How did you like your eggs this morning?" Answer: A graduation between "not at all" and "absolute ecstasy". Question: "Did you like your eggs this morning?". Answer: Yes/No. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 9 '11 at 19:41
    
@Alain: And the question "How do you like your eggs?" has two different meanings, depending on whether it's asked before or after the waiter has served you the eggs. –  Peter Shor Jun 10 '11 at 3:54
    
@Peter. Yes, that's exactly what I meant to say. I actually started that comment with "before" and "after" and then reverted to changing the verb tenses. I just added it because I thought your answer was even better understood with eggs (which can be prepared in many ways) than with a meal (where this is less conspicuous). –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 10 '11 at 4:08
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I have not seen the episode in question, so I may be well off the mark, but I do not see how "how would you like to die" could be interpreted as simply "would you like to die", at least if the character is in fear for his life. They are two different questions; the first assumes imminent death and affords the option of method, while the second is a simple challenge. It's (again, to me) the difference between "how shall I kill you" and "shall I kill you".

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I agree with PSU: the question How would you like to die? is in no case synonymous with Would you like to die? The humor does not arise because the answerer misunderstands the question, but because he deliberately ignores the context in which the question is asked.

That is, when A asks B How would you like to die?, he presumes that B is going to die very soon, probably at A's hand. However, B's answer subverts that assumption, as B states that he'd really prefer to die a long time from now, in pleasant circumstances that have nothing to do with A.

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How would you like to receive a downvote for missing the fact that this is, indeed, a common form of question that can indeed be asking whether (and how much) someone would like something? (-: "How would you like to see your wife and children dressed and housed like the curate?" -- The Colonel's Story, Another round of stories by the Christmas fire, 1854 –  JdeBP Jun 10 '11 at 14:18
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How in "how would you like to die?" has the same meaning it has in "how would you like to live?"
The first question could also imply "I am going to kill you," or "I am going to kill you; decide how you want to die," to which the answer could be "please don't kill me."

I would not say that how is superfluos, in the sentence. The questions you have reported are different, and depending on the context could imply the same thing.

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I agree there's a sense that how is superfluous in the intended interpretation in that it doesn't really contribute its usual degree or manner meaning; notice that How would you like to die in your bed, at the age of eighty, with your belly full of wine? still retains the threat-like meaning. That said, it isn't entirely superfluous, because How would you like to die? is clearly not synonymous with Would you like to die?. So, to me anyway, a reasonable answer would be that, in this case at least, how simply indicates the threat-like meaning. (though as someone else has pointed out, not all examples with how used in this way are threats; some can be invitations, etc.)

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