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“You should wake me,” I say, thinking about how I can interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night.

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    What do you think they are? – Cascabel 2 days ago
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    "About" is a preposition (in modern grammar), and "how" is an adverb. – BillJ 2 days ago
  • @BillJ is right about "about" being a preposition, but "how," while it's sometimes an adverb, in that sentence is a conjunction (see def. 12, along with 13 that specifically adds the word "about" to the definition and so leaves it out of the example below it, at the following link: dictionary.com/browse/how). – Benjamin Harman 2 days ago
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    @Benjamin Harman: how is an adverb here, and not a conjunction. What tricks one into thinking that it might be a conjunction is mistaking the part how I can interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night for a declarative sentence/clause, when in fact it is an embedded interrogative clause. – user405662 2 days ago
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    I take it as an adverb because it questions the manner in which you can interrupt his sleep. The expression "how I can interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night" is a subordinate interrogative clause (embedded question), meaning "... thinking about the answer to the question 'How can I interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night?'" – BillJ 2 days ago
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You should wake me,” I say, thinking about [how I can interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night].

"About" is best analysed as a preposition, and "how" as an interrogative adverb.

The expression "how I can interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night" is a subordinate interrogative clause (embedded question) functioning as complement of "about".

The meaning is "... thinking about the answer to the question 'How can I interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night?'"

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  • I'm pretty certain RH and GKP would disagree here. This appears to be an example of subordinator how. In conjunction with "You should wake me", the string "thinking about how I can interrupt his sleep ..." seems to mean "thinking that I can interrupt his sleep ...". (Reference would be CGEL "How as a subordinator" p. 954.) – Araucaria - Not here any more. 12 hours ago
  • Consider for comparison "I wonder how I can interrupt his sleep" (where it is the aim of the speaker/thinker to interrupt the sleep). – Araucaria - Not here any more. 11 hours ago
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. I don't see that at all. "How" is not classified as a subordinator. H&P eschew the idea of "how" being a fused relative except very marginally as an alternant to "however". In your example, "how I can interrupt his sleep" can only be an interrogative meaning "I wonder about the answer to the question 'How can I interrupt his sleep?"' – BillJ 7 hours ago
  • “ ‘How’ is not classified as a subordinator” <—- check the CGEL ref I gave! H&P do indeed include how as a member of the subordinator category. It took me ages to dig that ref out. Have a look. It’s quite interesting. Their position is quite clear because of the heading: ‘How as a subordinator’ (p. 954)! – Araucaria - Not here any more. 2 hours ago
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Yes, but that's a highly informal use of "how", where it has a different sense, roughly equivalent to "that". But that's irrelevant to this thread where "how" is an interrogative adverb introducing an interrogative clause. We can't say thinking about that I can interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night. – BillJ 1 hour ago
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... I say, thinking about how I can interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night.

Everything following the preposition 'about' is part of a prepositional phrase.

Prepositional phrases require an object such as a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun; or a complement.

I can substitute the pronoun 'it' into the sentence in place of the entire clause, in other words...

"I say, thinking about it..."

But...

"how I can interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night"

is the complement of about, and an embedded question. AKA subordinate interrogative clause.


The original question would have been:

How can I interrupt his sleep?

How is an interrogative adverb seen here in an inverted SV structure , but the entire clause from the OP is in its non-inverted form as the complement of the preposition 'about'; this is normal with embedded questions.

The non-inverted construction is used because it is not a direct question.

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  • It got me thinking. Would "the way in which" be an interrogative adverb then? If I had to bet I would say it is not an interrogative adverb (there is no interrogation at all) but a conjunctive adverb. See ell.stackexchange.com/questions/246450/… If that also applies to "the way in which" I am not sure. The difference between relative pronouns, adverbs and all that somehow escapes me. – Pablo GM 2 days ago
  • @PabloGM Possibly that would make an interesting question, but I think the definition depends on the function in a clause or phrase. The "way in which" is an incomplete phrase. "in which" would part of a relative clause. – Cascabel 2 days ago
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    I don't think "interrogative" is the right term; there is no question being formulated. Consider for instance this: "Taking it one day at a time is how they succeed.". You can say as well "How they succeed is by taking it one day at a time.". It seems clear that there is no question and that "how they succeed" is a general way of referring to "Taking it one day at a time", in other words, "the manner in which they succeed" or "the manner thanks to which they succeed". – LPH 2 days ago
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    There is this point of view and it has been recently introduced by Huddleston & Pullum in theii CEGL; I do not share it though; here is what CoGEL says about wh relative clauses (15.8): "Nominal relative clauses resemble wh-interrogative clauses […] a major reason for including nominal relative clauses in this chapter is that it is often difficult to distinguish them from interrogative clauses.". It is natural that a clause that "interrogates" should have an interrogative word and that one which "relates" should have another. ToughtCo, – LPH 2 days ago
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    @Cascabel I'd prefer to call the interrogative clause a complement of "about", keeping the term "object' just for NP complements. – BillJ yesterday
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"About" is a preposition; the reason for that is that what follows "about" is a nominal clause (or noun clause, alternatively put), and that such a clause, which is similar to a noun, can stand as the prepositional complement (CoGEL p.655 § 9.1, "The prepositional complement is characteristically a noun phrase, a nominal wh clause, or a nominal -ing clause."); "How" is one of the so called wh words.

  • nominal clause after "about": how I can interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night

In this clause "how" is an adverb, it modifies the verb 'interrupt". It is also considered to be a relative word; this is so because all nominal relative clauses "can be paraphrased by a noun phrase containing a noun head with general reference that is modified by a relative clause" (CoGEL p.1056 § 15.8). Such an equivalent could be as follows.

  • the way in which I can interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night

The word "way" is the general reference. "In which …night" is the modifying relative clause.

From CoGEL p. 1057 § 15.8, "the wh element may function within the relative nominal clause as subject, direct object, complement, adverbial, or prepositional complement.

Since "how" is an adverb modifying "interrupt" (see for instance Noun-Clause Starters, Thought Co, how is an adverb modifying the verb), it functions as an adverbial modifying the verb "interrupt".


In view of the criticism that this answer received, given the unconditional rejection that can be read into it and given its being hermetic to all reasoning, I will add some references here to show that besides those I have mentioned above there are others that share the same point of view, a traditional one in English grammar.

The clause can't be but subordinate to "itself", since it contains its antecedent. It is what is also called a free relative clauses: "in English grammar, a free relative clause is a type of relative clause (that is, a word group beginning with a wh-word) that contains the antecedent within itself" No antecedent in the main clause, no subordination to that clause) (free relative clause, Wikipedia)

This is explained further in this article from Wikipedia (fused relative construction) and this one in thoughtco.

English allows what is called a free, fused or nominal relative construction. This kind of relative construction consists of a relative clause that instead of attaching to an external antecedent—and modifying it as an external noun phrase—is "fused" with it; and thus a nominal function is "fused" into the resultant 'construction'. For example:

  • What he did was clearly impossible.

Here "What he did" has the same sense as "that which he did", or "the thing that he did". Thus the noun phrase the thing and the relative pronoun that are 'fused' into what; and the resulting relative construction "What he did" functions as the subject of the verb was. Free relative constructions are inherently restrictive.


References suggested and presented by user Pablo GM (6/5/21)

For further reading, see fused relatives versus interrogatives. You can also check this other post on relative pronouns after a preposition . This other post on fused structures can also help illustrate the issue. In it, there is an answer with a recommendation to read Dixon's Basic Linguistic Theory, sec. 17.5.3, which is a good read.

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  • That sounds right. What is CoGEL? Could you leave a link to it? – Pablo GM 2 days ago
  • The main difference is that this answer states that "how" works as a "relative word" and it doesn't add "interrogative" to the adverbial nature of the word. Different sources, probably. – Pablo GM 2 days ago
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    Yes, "about" is a preposition and "how" is an adverb. But what follows "about" is not a noun clause but a subordinate interrogative clause (embedded question) functioning as complement of "about". Come on, get the grammar right! – BillJ 2 days ago
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    Thank you for your help. I am a new teacher to middle school and I loved showing my students the lively debate. Thank you for responding so quickly and thoroughly. I'm sure I will be back as my grammar needs some refreshing! – Linda Arnold yesterday

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