Would you differentiate which are relatives and which are interrogatives? (And I want to know the sub-category (sub-name) of each below, if they are.)

  1. “You can keep it,” said Harry, laughing at how pleased Ron was. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)
  2. Disgusted that the Slytherins had lost, he had tried to get everyone laughing at how a wide-mouthed tree frog would be replacing Harry as Seeker next. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)
  3. His questions showed me how complex and mysterious were certain institutions of the Church which I had always regarded as the simplest acts. (James Joyce, Dubliners)
  4. "I don't give a damn how you lost it as long as you keep it hidden." (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man)
  5. We revenged ourselves on Leo Dillon by saying what a funk he was and guessing how many he would get at three o'clock from Mr. Ryan. (James Joyce, Dubliners)
  6. The duties of the priest towards the Eucharist and towards the secrecy of the con-fessional seemed so grave to me that I wondered how anybody had ever found in himself the courage to undertake them. (James Joyce, Dubliners)
  7. I noticed how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back and [8.] how the heels of her cloth boots were trodden down all to one side. (James Joyce, Dubliners)

As Dr. McCawley says:

It is often difficult to distinguish free relatives from interrogative complements, and indeed many examples are ambiguous between the two interpretations. (James D. McCawley, 1988. p.431)

It’s very difficult to distinguish which is relative and which is interrogative. A Korean blogger says, how in “How I spend my free time is a private matter.” is a nominal relative [free relative or fused relative], but in “I want to say how pleased I am to receive this award.” it's an interrogative.

This differentiation is somewhat easy: for the first how functions as CGEL says “combines the function of head of the NP and precuclear element in a modifying relative clause.” And the latter how functions as not referring to something known, something concrete, which can be specified (source).

  • This appears to be off-topic because it is not a question.
    – MetaEd
    Aug 29, 2013 at 3:01
  • 4
    There is a question, in the title and opening sentence: how to distinguish fused relatives from interrogative complements ('embedded questions'). And no less an authority than Prof. McCawley calls this "a good question". Jul 12, 2014 at 17:50
  • 2
    Hey folks, 'I can't understand the question' is not the same as "unclear what you're asking" Oct 22, 2014 at 22:53
  • 1
    Fantanstic question. Wish you could be up-voted twice!! - Don't know the answer though! :) Oct 22, 2014 at 22:53
  • Some of these are neither interrogative or fused relatives. They're exclamative clauses. In other words they're the subordinate versions of sentences like "How tall you are!" Oct 6, 2023 at 13:59

1 Answer 1


A very good question.

Basically, the more chunks you cut away from a clause,
the less likely you are to be able to tell it from
a different kind of clause that's been sliced up just as much.

There are two kinds of embedded Wh-clauses.
Haj Ross calls them Conjunctive and Disjunctive Wh-clauses.
The difference is essentially the difference between

  • a relative clause, which is presupposed (therefore conjunctive),


  • a question, which is indeterminate (therefore disjunctive)

  • Conjunctive Wh-clauses (A and B and C and D and ...)

    1a. Who Sandor photographed ...
    1b. Where he developed the film ...
    1c. How much he was paid for the negatives ... is fantastic to the kids.
    1d. What they shot at him with ...
    1e. Why he wants to write it all up ...

  • Disjunctive Wh-clauses (A or B or C or D or ...)

    2a. Who Sandor photographed ...
    2b. Where he developed the film ...
    2c. How much he was paid for the negatives ... is a mystery to the kids.
    2d. What they shot at him with ...
    2e. Why he wants to write it all up ...

The distinction seems to be triggered by the predicate governing the Wh-clause.
If it's factive, like be fantastic, it's conjunctive; otherwise, like a mystery, it's disjunctive.

  • John could you please provide me with some articles that says more of it? I have been thinking about it recently, and even after reading CGEL's discussion, it's not helping much. I'm trying to judge if who are included in the team in a list of who are included in the team is an open relative clause or a fused relative construction. Jun 22, 2016 at 13:25
  • Start with the references at the end of the Ross paper in the link. CGEL is sui generis, and has its own terminology and viewpoint, which doesn't take in the same things as a generative viewpoint like this, so you shouldn't expect to make them correlate with McCawley (1998) in many cases. Jun 22, 2016 at 14:01
  • thank you John. Recently I'm getting confused about whether the wh-clause after a list of as in a list of who passed the exam is a fused relative or an open interrogative clause. I wrote an answer here. Could you please comment on it? ell.stackexchange.com/a/94671/3463 Jun 25, 2016 at 14:16
  • I've come across this answer and briefly looked at Haj Ross's paper. I'm surprised that you think of "Conjunctive Wh-clauses" (CWH's) as relative clauses, since CWH's as well as DWH's as defined in the paper seem to be interrogative clauses. For example, (1d) can be glossed as : "The answer to the question of what they shot at him with is fantastic to the kids," not as "The thing which they shot at him with is fantastic to the kids." Moreover, there's not a single mention of 'relative' in the paper. Please let me know if I'm mistaken about this.
    – JK2
    Apr 30, 2018 at 7:12
  • @JK2 I personally don't see why we cannot label all of them as relative clauses. The interrogative component is more on the semantic side of things.
    – AJK432
    May 23, 2019 at 14:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.