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What is the grammatical function of "how" in this sentence:

He told us how to do it.

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2 Answers 2

In this sentence, the use of how is exactly parallel to some uses of whom.

He told us how to do it.

He told us whom to see about it.

However, in these uses, whom is officially classified as a relative pronoun, and how as a relative adverb (although sometimes it is called a subordinating conjunction). It makes you wonder whether the definitions of all these parts of speech were designed with a different language in mind, and the grammarians are shoehorning English into them as best they can.

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Looking at it in another dimension it is an interrogative adverb since it replaces an adverb of manner with a wh- word - but that's not a traditional grammatical view. I agree with Peter about the shoehorning. Grammatical classifications are not perfect. –  hippietrail Jun 27 '11 at 13:30
@hippietrail: But since it is not an interrogative sentence, I think "relative adverb" would be the correct term. But when I looked at relative adverbs in style guides, they only list why, when, and where. But I think that is the right term nonetheless. –  Kosmonaut Jun 27 '11 at 13:38
@Kosmonaut: Oh of course you are right. The interrogative words have two uses with distinct names. My bad for commenting on English grammar while trying to switch my brain from Japanese to Turkish (-: –  hippietrail Jun 27 '11 at 13:43
@Peter Shor: "Did you see [where I bought it]" still contains a relative clause ("where I bought it") and a relative adverb ("where"), as far as I know. So, "he told us [how to do it]" is using how as a relative adverb, as well. I just figured I would find something specifically saying this in a few Google searches but didn't. –  Kosmonaut Jun 27 '11 at 14:27
@Kosmonaut: NOAD says relative adverb, if that's helpful: oxforddictionaries.com/definition/how In fact, at the very bottom of the page there is an answer to this question –  Matt E. Эллен Jun 27 '11 at 15:30

The NOAD reports how is an adverb that means "in what way or manner, by what means."

She showed me how to adjust the focus.

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