Consider this question and its related answer:


How was the pizza?


It was delicious.

The question is asking how, which is defined in every dictionary as an adverb, but the answer is delicious, which is an adjective.

Why is how considered an adverb, even in this case?

  • 'Why is "how" an adverb?' is impossible to answer, nor does it have any connection at all to with the adjective 'delicious'. – Roaring Fish Oct 26 '14 at 10:45

The Oxford English Dictionary has a very long page of meanings for how (two senses are quoted below). Probably what you need is a better quality dictionary/grammar book!

The "adverb meaning"

I.1.a. Qualifying a verb: In what way or manner? By what means?

The "adjective" meaning.

I.2.a. In what condition or state? how are you?: (in quot. 1918) used ironically in sense ‘indeed!’ how do you do? (formerly how do you?): common phrases used in inquiring as to a person's health. See also how-do-ye phr. and n., how-do-you-do phr. and n. Also, how goes it? = how-do-you-do phr. and n. 1; how's (or how are) things (or, orig. Austral. and N.Z., tricks?) ; how do?: = how-do-you-do phr. and n.

  • 1
    Or you could say adverbs can (sometimes) be used adjectivally with the copula to be, just as other phrases can that are normally adverbial, or at least ones that normally cannot come before a noun: I am good, I am well, I am in the cupboard. The requirements for a subject complement after a copula are not as strictly adjectival as before a noun. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Oct 26 '14 at 16:08
  • @Cerberus good point. – jlovegren Oct 26 '14 at 16:18
  • @tchrist I agree that good and well are too irregular to be of very much use. but at least there will be acknowledged some differences between prenominal and predicating adjectives. e.g., The kindly old man/(x)The old man is kindly. What is relevant here is that you can question a predicating adjective with how, but you need to use some elaborate formulation like which kind of... to question a prenominal adjective. – jlovegren Oct 26 '14 at 17:15

Dictionaries generally label "how" as an adverb, though one gets into difficulties when one wants to show that it is an adverb. Adverbs modify several other word classes as verbs, adjectives, adverbs, even sentences. The only case where "how" is used as modifier I can think of is "How funny". When you look at articles about kind of adverbs you find adverbs of manner/place/time/frequency/degree/ intensifiers/focus/viewpoints/connectives; so in Longman English Grammar. But you don't find an adverb class where "how" might belong to.

But modifying another word is not the main use of "how". It is mainly used to form questions and it is appropriate to label this use simply as question words, even though such a word class is normally not listed among the traditional word classes.

By the way, answers to how-questions can be of several types. When you are asked "How do you go to your office?" you won't answer with an adjective.

  • It’s been said that branding something an adverb is an admission of failure to classify. :) – tchrist Oct 26 '14 at 17:22

How was the pizza? It was delicious.

The sentence "how was the pizza?" is what is called a surface, or S, structure. The semantics of the sentence would suggest that you were asking about the verb 'taste', e.g., "how does the pizza taste?", the answer to which the word 'how' seeks to elicit. There is a class of verbs like 'was' or 'taste' that take adjectives (like delicious) as complements, but still need a wh- question word (like how) when asking a question.

In standard syntax, wh- words are classified as syntactic adverbs just because they occur in the vicinity of the verb, a VP (verb phrase) constituent, to use the jargon.

  • Hello, Lolu. Aren't surface structures / deep structures posited in only certain forms of grammar? – Edwin Ashworth Sep 10 '17 at 23:56

TLDR: It does not matter what part of speech which you or anybody else calls how; it only matters what it does. How is a wh-question word, which are in a category of their own. They can be called into service to fulfil many different gramatical roles. Asking after the condition of a noun demands some sort of noun modifier (or actual substantive) in response, which is typically an adjective — just like here.

The way to determine the part of speech played by any word in a phrase or sentence is not by looking it up in a dictionary, but rather by examining the job which that word is doing in the actual sample being scrutinized.

So for example, we have all these different uses of how:

  1. I don’t care about the hows or the whys; I just care about the results.
  2. How so sir, did she change her determination?
    (Shakespeare, 1592, Merry Wives of Windsor; ɪɪɪ. v. 69)
  3. And so drew Argo up, with hale and how, On the grass.
    (William Morris, 1867, Jason and the Argonauts, x. 587)
  4. I couldn’t figure out how to open the contraption for the life of me.
  5. Bob Cratchit told them how he had a situation in his eye for Master Peter.
    (Charles Dickens, 1884, A Christmas Carol, iii)
  6. Do you know any good how-to books on crochet?
  7. Coming upon the Lone Ranger with his back turned, Tonto startled him with the traditional Sioux greeting, “How, Kemosabe.”
  8. What need ye hech and how, ladies? What need ye how for me?
    (Mary Hamilton, 1889, in Child Ballads)
  9. To the top of Great How did it please them to climb.
    (William Wordsworth, 1800, Rural Architecture, 4)
  10. Her acceptance of your apology depends on how you present it.
  11. How silly!
  12. How the hell did you ever do that?
  13. How about a picnic in the park today?
  14. How did the story turn out?
  15. How many sugar packets would you like?
  16. I put my whole back into it, and how!
  17. How now, Malvolio?
    (Shakespeare, 1601, Twelfth Night, ɪɪɪ. iv. 16)
  18. ‘Will you join us in a little conspiracy?’
    How do you mean conspiracy, young man?’
    (Thackeray, 1849, Pendennis, lxxiv)
  19. How is little Johnny coming along in his studies?
  20. How does that that song go?
  21. How do you feel?
  22. How are those tomatoes?
  23. How was show last night?

(Several examples omitted for brevity.)

As you see above, even when used as a wh-question word at the start of a question, how can fulfil many different roles.

When an interrogative sentence of the inverted form Wh-V-S? gets flipped around into normal word order and the wh-word replaced by something discrete, so S-V-X, that X is not always an adverb or adverbial phrase. It can be an adjective:

  1. I feel strong and healthy.
  2. These tomatoes are tasty.
  3. Last night’s show was boring.

When that happens, it is because the original how was not asking an adverbial question like “by what means”.

Rather, it was asking about the condition or state of the subject. That’s why those answers are all adjectives: the verbs are copulae and so the predicate complement is adjectival not adverbial.

If this makes you classify how as an “adjective” here, then so be it. It does not matter.

You really should not get so hung up on parts of speech, particularly those from that or this dictionary. They are nothing but arbitrary assignments that vary widely according to the purpose of whoever is making them. They serve little real purpose — and here, I believe, none at all.

It does not matter what you or anybody else calls how; it only matters what it does.


Adverbs are words which help describe an action. They themselves are a hybrid word class of adjective and verb hence adverb. "How quaint!" describes an ongoing action "to be" or "being" and also describes how you are being. I hope that helps.


Where is the adjective?

If the question is about "was" (so, adverb, as you noted), so is the answer.

  • 2
    The adjective is 'delicious'. – Roaring Fish Oct 26 '14 at 10:45
  • @Roaring We are talking about How, not delicious. :) Save your votes. – Kris Oct 26 '14 at 10:53
  • As I understand it, we are talking about why 'how' is an adverb when the answer is an adjective. – Roaring Fish Oct 26 '14 at 16:34
  • Be is a copular verb: its predicate complement is therefore always either nominal or adjectival, never adverbial. – tchrist Oct 26 '14 at 16:38
  • @tchrist Superb! You're the only one to see what's going on here. Nevermind we don't agree on the ultimate answer. (I'm unable to upvote comments, among many other things, from my phone for now.) – Kris Oct 26 '14 at 16:53

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