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Here is an example of what I am wondering about:

I wonder why or how someone could kill a person.

In this sentence we have two questions, why and how. They both require different supporting words: would and could. Here I have chosen could, but would also sounds fine.

Which is correct? Does the order of why and how in my sentence matter? Finally, what is the name for why and how in this sentence?

Edit: I think this is a Syllepsis, and thus correct.

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I am new to the site, if I used a wrong tag or missed a question along these lines, just let me know. –  BBischof Sep 25 '10 at 3:07
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It seems to me that "why" goes with "would" and "how" with "could" (not the other way round as you wrote), so by choosing "could" you've chosen the second choice. –  ShreevatsaR Sep 25 '10 at 4:04
    
@ShereevatsaR hehe, oops! –  BBischof Sep 25 '10 at 5:19
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Would you? Could you? / in a car? / Eat them! Eat them! / Here they are. –  nohat Sep 25 '10 at 23:22
    
@nohat nice, very nice. –  BBischof Sep 26 '10 at 0:03
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3 Answers 3

Either is correct, depending on the intended meaning.


1) I wonder why or how someone could kill a person.

This is asking two questions, of course. The first is: "I wonder why someone could kill a person.". This is a somewhat odd question if taken literally. The appropriate (though rather trite) response might be "Because we are all physical beings and are thus capable of killing."

The second question is: "I wonder how someone could kill a person.". To this, a valid response might be, "With the use of a weapon such as a gun or knife, or one of various other means.".

2) I wonder why or how someone would kill a person.

Again, taking the first question: "I wonder why someone would kill a person.". To this, a valid response might be, "Perhaps because that person is an enemy in war.".

The second question being, of course: "I wonder how someone would kill a person." This is quite similar to the second question of version 1, though with a subtle difference. It implies a specific intention that someone would kill another person, or similarly, what would be a likely means of killing.


Finally, the order of why and how is not really a matter of grammar, so either way round is acceptable. However, I would tend to put how first as it is the more direct/superficial interrogative.

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Your answer seems completely irrelevant to me. This is exactly the point of my question. Is that no matter if I choose could or would, I get something strange out of my sentence. You are merely restating my question with more detail which were already obvious. The last two sentences are the only relevant ones, but you just give an opinion! Is there a technically correct choice? And what about the second part of my question, this you did not address. –  BBischof Sep 25 '10 at 23:14
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Wow, way to be a total dickhead. I have answered your question fully and clearly, if you don't want to listen to people who wish to impart you with knowledge, don't use this site. I sincerely hope that a moderator considers suspending you, for you clearly have no concept of what being part of a community entails. –  Noldorin Sep 25 '10 at 23:40
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@Noldorin: BBischof is only saying that he feels the answer is irrelevant; I wish you wouldn't interpret it as, or make, a personal attack. –  ShreevatsaR Oct 8 '10 at 8:14
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@Noldorin: I am not aware of previous disputes, but it is part of this site's normal process to learn from and evaluate each others' answers… including criticizing them. (Do you think that downvoting is rude too?) Someone was only criticising your post; but you replied with comments about the person… now you question my culture. :-) For what it's worth, it's precisely because I was concerned by rudeness that I made my comment; but I apologise for getting involved, and I will withdraw now. –  ShreevatsaR Oct 8 '10 at 19:15
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[Just for explanation: I do think your post here is just an elaboration of the question (but I didn't downvote it) — the question says he wants "why" to go with "would" and "how" with "could", and your answer explains why someone would want this. IMHO, though Bruno's offered sentence comes as close as possible, the question has no real answer, and in particular yours isn't one.] –  ShreevatsaR Oct 8 '10 at 19:18
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"Would" infers motive (love, money, jealousy, etc.), whereas "could" infers method (with a gun, knife, radiation poisoning, etc.). Noldorin answered this in a more detailed manner, however.

Edit: In my opinion, there isn't a "correct" use here -- it depends on what you mean. "Could" and "would" are two entirely separate questions.

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By "infers" you mean "implies". (The words imply, we infer.) –  ShreevatsaR Oct 8 '10 at 11:28
    
Notice that he's not asking whether he should use "could" or "would". He's actually asking how to combine the meaning of both in the same sentence: "In this sentence we have two questions, why and how. They both require different supporting words: would and could. " –  b.roth Oct 8 '10 at 11:47
    
@Shreevatsar, you're right -- I confused myself by thinking in terms of "You infer motive by using would" –  jwiscarson Oct 8 '10 at 15:03
    
@Bruno, I see your point. However, I can't help but feel that the original question, if your interpretation is correct, does not communicate that in a clear manner. –  jwiscarson Oct 8 '10 at 15:07
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The answer to "is the first verb always the correct choice?" is No. The reason is the following:

If you choose "I wonder why and how someone could kill a person.", you're saying the same as "I wonder why someone could kill a person and how someone could kill a person." You don't mean that.

And if you choose "I wonder why and how someone would kill a person.", you're saying the same as "I wonder why someone would kill a person and how someone would kill a person." You don't mean exactly that either.

The only solution that I can think of is to rebuild the sentence, otherwise you won't be expressing what you mean clearly. Something like:

I wonder why someone would kill a person and also how someone could do it.

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