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I see questions formed like "How to do this?" every day. They are so frequent that I wonder if there is a name for grammatical errors of this kind.

  • They are so frequent that I wonder what makes you think they are grammatical errors. They are not. – RegDwigнt May 27 '13 at 9:31
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    Yes, it's a fragment. Fragments are not ungrammatical per se, though. Otherwise they wouldn't exist in the first place. This very site, and Stack Exchange in general, has any number of questions that follow the exact pattern you object to. No native speaker is editing them for grammar, and quite a few of them are by native speakers in the first place. If I absolutely had to classify them as wrong, I'd go with "punctuation errors", as removing the question mark will make them perfectly acceptable to every last person. – RegDwigнt May 27 '13 at 10:04
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    Removing the question mark will change the meaning of sentence. I could as well argue they are spelling errors because removing all characters after "How" will make them a perfectly acceptable native american greeting. – artistoex May 27 '13 at 10:13
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    @RegDwighт What do you mean, "Otherwise they wouldn't exist in the first place"? If my "sentence" is "ice tiGEr bananana sklfjd," the sentence's existence doesn't prove its status as a grammatical expression. "How to do this?" is a question with no finite verb and no subject - that's blatantly ungrammatical. Even if the question mark were removed, the "sentence" would still be lacking a finite verb and a subject. – Cmillz Jun 6 '13 at 9:43
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    @RegDwighт I completely disagree, and I think you've made a bit of a leap here. I don't think that usage must follow grammar at all, and I also don't think that colloquial usage defines grammar. A sentence with no finite verb and no subject is acceptable in certain circumstances, but that does not make it grammatical (also, I took your original statement to mean that fragments are grammatical by their very existence, which I now don't think you meant to say). – Cmillz Jun 11 '13 at 22:30
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The name is idiom, i.e. an irregular construction that is nevertheless felt to be correct. The question mark, however, is advised against by (some) style guides based on the fact that it is not a direct question; then it is simply an error, possibly based on confusion between direct and indirect questions. However, it is not uncommon, so there are no doubt people who look at it as a mere variation.


As to the lack of a question mark in how to in a title, that is most probably an elliptical indirect/dependent question:

[ (Here Follows) A Treatise On (The Question) ] How To Woo Maidens


As to the use of to + infinitive instead of a finite verb, that is by no means limited to how:

He knew how to woo Cleopatra.

"Where to find griffins" — A Revised Manual.

One Ring to rule them all,

One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all,

And in the darkness bind them.

Just as you can say this ring is to find them all as meaning "this ring is [meant/supposed] to find them all", you can turn it into an attributive construction, the ring to find them all. This construction may be of elliptical origin, or it may just be that to + infinitive could always be used attributively after the word it modified.

As to the origin of this sense of purpose/expectation in to + infinitive, I do not know; I can only note that the Latin gerundive works in a somewhat similar way and is often translated as to + inf.; it is possible that the English construction was partly based on the Latin by analogy.

  • Thanks. But you didn't address the case when such constructions are used to from questions. – artistoex May 27 '13 at 12:18
  • @artistoex: Oh, you mean the question mark specifically? Yes, I should address that, will do. – Cerberus May 27 '13 at 17:04
  • I still think you've missed the core of the question. This is not about using the sentence as a statement. Such as "How to tie this knot", meaning an instructional article/sentence on how the knot is tied. Rather, people will write "How to tie this knot" when they're actually asking how the knot is tied. It's very confusing to me to see that as the title of a post/article, expect to find instructions, but instead find a query. – Mac Sep 18 '16 at 23:50
  • @Mac I was trying to deal with both cases, and I think we are in agreement. We both consider how to to be incorrect in a direct question, but incorrect as a subordinate clause, don't we? The subordinate clause can nevertheless still be an elliptical question, that is, it is correct if it modifies the word question or if it is a complement to the verb know, but there should be no question mark at the end. Example: [I'd like to know] how to tie my shoe laces. Or would you call this wrong too? – Cerberus Sep 19 '16 at 1:00
  • P.S. And what to think about a question like this: [could you tell me] how to find the archaeological museum? – Cerberus Sep 19 '16 at 1:01
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I think you can just refer to them as informal grammar usage? The use of informal language is becoming frequent due to the convenience of the Internet.

Informal:

  • How to use the fire extinguisher?
  • How to lock the door?

Formal:

  • How can the fire extinguisher be used? / How should we use the fire extinguisher?
  • How can the door be locked? / How do we lock the door?
  • Welcome to English Language & Usage! Please use the Post answer button only for actual answers. With a bit more rep, you will be able to post comments. – NVZ May 2 '17 at 5:54

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