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I was reading this paper and I came across this sentence, which I found quite odd.

In the words of Bertrand Russell, the problem is this: “How comes it that human beings, whose contacts with the world are brief and personal and limited, are able to know as much as they do know?”

Shouldn't it be 'How come is it' ? It just doesn't sound right, maybe because I am not a native speaker.

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    Why was this down voted, just want to know. Is it something trivial ? Should I ask this question somewhere else? – The very fluffy Panda Jul 22 '14 at 0:10
  • I have no idea why it was downvoted. – Colin Fine Jul 22 '14 at 0:13
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No. How come is it doesn't make sense.

How comes it is an example of an older syntax of English, which you can find readily in sources such as Shakespeare and the King James Bible. In modern speech this has been entirely replaced by How does it come, but we still use the older syntax with auxiliaries: how is it, how can you etc.

I think that in Russell's day, though this form was in general obsolete, how comes it had survived as a literary idiom.

  • PDE syntax, at least in informal registers, is more likely to run to "How come human beings ... are able ..." – Brian Donovan Jul 22 '14 at 2:26
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    @BrianDonovan That's a different meaning, though it originates in the same metaphor: How come? asks "Why?", but How comes it asks How?. – StoneyB Jul 22 '14 at 2:55
  • @StoneyB, try the substitution of one for the other in Russell's question as a whole, and see if you still think there's much difference in meaning. – Brian Donovan Jul 22 '14 at 3:25
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Old English. Still not uncommon as a form of intellectual prose.

Edit: I should say outdated English. Old English would be like:

How cometh that human beings...

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    No, that would be (early) Modern English, not Old English. Examples of Old English uses of the verb come include Đonne þu cymes to me and Cymeð dæʒ his and Wæs Hæsten þa þær cumen and Sunnan leoma cymeþ scynan and Þonne ic cume ic hit forʒylde þe and ʒe··þe þus brontne ceol ofer lagustræte lædan cwomon and Æfter þam to his leode cuom··and ymb ii ʒear þæs þe he in Francum com he ʒefór. See the difference now? – tchrist Jul 22 '14 at 0:41
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    No. That would be Early Modern English as to cometh, and Modern English as to human being, first attested after the Restoration. – StoneyB Jul 22 '14 at 0:48

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