What is the grammatical function of "how" in this sentence:

He told us how to do it.

3 Answers 3


In this sentence, the use of how is exactly parallel to some uses of whom.

He told us how to do it.

He told us whom to see about it.

However, in these uses, whom is officially classified as a relative pronoun, and how as a relative adverb (although sometimes it is called a subordinating conjunction). It makes you wonder whether the definitions of all these parts of speech were designed with a different language in mind, and the grammarians are shoehorning English into them as best they can.

  • Looking at it in another dimension it is an interrogative adverb since it replaces an adverb of manner with a wh- word - but that's not a traditional grammatical view. I agree with Peter about the shoehorning. Grammatical classifications are not perfect. Jun 27, 2011 at 13:30
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    @hippietrail: But since it is not an interrogative sentence, I think "relative adverb" would be the correct term. But when I looked at relative adverbs in style guides, they only list why, when, and where. But I think that is the right term nonetheless.
    – Kosmonaut
    Jun 27, 2011 at 13:38
  • @Kosmonaut: Oh of course you are right. The interrogative words have two uses with distinct names. My bad for commenting on English grammar while trying to switch my brain from Japanese to Turkish (-: Jun 27, 2011 at 13:43
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    @Peter Shor: "Did you see [where I bought it]" still contains a relative clause ("where I bought it") and a relative adverb ("where"), as far as I know. So, "he told us [how to do it]" is using how as a relative adverb, as well. I just figured I would find something specifically saying this in a few Google searches but didn't.
    – Kosmonaut
    Jun 27, 2011 at 14:27
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    @Kosmonaut: NOAD says relative adverb, if that's helpful: oxforddictionaries.com/definition/how In fact, at the very bottom of the page there is an answer to this question Jun 27, 2011 at 15:30

The NOAD reports how is an adverb that means "in what way or manner, by what means."

She showed me how to adjust the focus.


It's a question word. It's found in your example, because the construction is an embedded question, and question words go in questions. "We asked him how to do it, and he told us how to do it; that is, he told us the answer to the question 'How do you do it?'."

  • "I loved how you answered that question" Would ‘how’ still be considered a question word in that phrase?
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 8, 2015 at 17:40
  • @Mari-LouA, yes. Although most wh-words have corresponding functions as relative pronouns and question words, "how" does not. "How" is not a relative pronoun -- *"I loved the way how you answered that question."
    – Greg Lee
    May 8, 2015 at 17:50
  • In the OP's example I can understand that how answers the question: "How do you do it?". But in my example, there is no question implied. How expresses the way someone does an action. It's used as an adverb, isn't it?
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 8, 2015 at 17:59
  • Well, @Mari-LouA, yes, "how" is used as an adverb. But the question word "how" is also used as an adverb in direct questions, so the fact that "how" is an adverb doesn't show that it's not a question word.
    – Greg Lee
    May 8, 2015 at 18:09
  • EDIT: Hmm...Thank you for explaining. I need time to mull that over :) I'm not disputing that "how" is a question word, but I don't think it is in the OP's example even though it is answering an implied question. And in my example: "I loved how you...." is only a simple statement, disconnected to any question.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 8, 2015 at 20:48

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