Can somebody help me categorise the meaning/purpose of the following sentence, and explain why the verb 'was' is at the end of what I hope is a nominal clause?

I was shocked by how blue the sky was.

'How blue the sky was', is the nominal clause functioning as an object,no?

It appears to replicate reported speech structure: E.g. He told me how sad he was.

But this How + adjective + s + v looks like an exclamation.

E.g How beautiful you are!

Is there a name, or a good resource for identifying nominal clauses that start with interrogatives?

Help would be much appreciated. :)

  • 1
    The salient interpretation is that this is not interrogative "how", but exclamatory "how". "How blue the sky was" is a subordinate exclamative clause functioning as complement of "by". It is not the subordinate version of the main clause "How blue was the sky?", but of the exclamative "How blue the sky was"! If it were a subordinate interrogative, it would mean "I was shocked by the answer to the question 'How blue was the sky?'", which is not the salient interpretation here. Subordinate exclamatives do not permit subject-auxiliary inversion, which is why "was" occurs at the end of the clause.
    – BillJ
    Nov 15, 2018 at 9:23
  • Related.
    – tchrist
    Jun 9, 2023 at 0:36

1 Answer 1


In the sentence

  • I was shocked by how blue the sky was.

the clause how blue the sky was is the object of the preposition by. That makes it a noun clause (also called a complement clause), because the object of a preposition has to be a noun phrase, and noun clauses are the ones that can be used as noun phrases.

In terms of structure, it's what's called an embedded question, because it uses most (but not all) of the structure of a Wh-question. It starts with a Wh-word (how in this case), and it's missing the referent to the Wh-word, which has been moved to the front to mark the clause.

The one thing that real Wh-questions do that embedded question complement clauses don't do is Subject-Auxiliary Inversion. That's why the was is at the end of the clause (right before the place where the degree word that how is referring to would appear), instead of being inverted with the subject like a real question.

  • How blue was the sky? I was shocked by the answer to this question.

(Except sometimes, when they really want an answer, people sometimes invert the auxiliary and subject in an embedded question complement, just like it was a real question. This is common in speech, but not writing.)

  • 1
    This sentence is ambiguous, because it could also be an embeded exclamative: I was shocked by how (very) blue the sky was -- How very blue the sky is! rather than How (very) blue is the sky?. If understood like this, the fronting of the wh- phrase would also occur in the unembedded version and the stranding of was would best be understood as a feature of its being exclamative, rather than its being subordinate. But that's only if it is exclamatory, of course. Nov 15, 2018 at 9:39

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