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The sentence in question:

How or what can a leader do to enhance the team's cohesion?

"How" and "what" are both interrogatives operating on "can". "What can a leader do..." makes sense, but "How can a leader do..." does not. What is the name for this sort of relationship? Is it permissible to use "how" and "what" interchangeably with respect to their syntax?

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    Technically, it's a goof. Fixed in a word or two. Since the two amount to the same thing, I'd drop How. Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 23:19
  • I'm aware it's a goof. Let's take a sentence that makes more sense, like "How or why can a leader enhance..." What do you call the phenomenon where you have two equally valid interrogatives? Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 0:36
  • More usually, 'Where' and 'when' are twinned. 'Where and when was the first iron bridge built?' ↔ 'Where was the first iron bridge built and when was the first iron bridge built?' it's an example of verb-phrase deletion (VP-deletion). Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 11:45
  • @EdwinAshworth And yet I'm sure you would agree that formulating the query this way becomes unremarkable? What can a leader do to enhance the team’s cohesion, and how?
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 5 at 1:53
  • @tchrist I'd not use it, and I'm not sure tat the 'how [can this be effected]' isn't implicit in 'what can ...'. Commented Jun 7 at 18:52

1 Answer 1

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This is an example of "syllepsis" (sometimes called "zeugma"). From the Collins Dictionary:

(in grammar or rhetoric) the use of a single sentence construction in which a verb, adjective, etc is made to cover two syntactical functions, as the verb form have in she and they have promised to come

The second conjunct works syntactically with the rest of the sentence:

What can a leader do to enhance the team's cohesion?

However, the first conjunct doesn't:

How can a leader do to enhance the team's cohesion?

"How" is usually an adverb or conjunction, and "what" is usually a pronoun or adjective. Thus, you normally can't coordinate them. (There are, of course, some exceptions. For example, if you don't mind being a bit liberal with the concept of parallelism: "As long as you dine in my restaurant, how and what you eat are not of any concern to me.")

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  • In zeugma, both 'half-readings' are grammatical and idiomatic, but the twinning doesn't work: 'Jim and his driving licence expired last week.' In 'How or what can a leader do to ...' I'd say there's anacoluthon. Syllepsis carries both meanings. // I'd say OP needs a grammatical example, the answer being VP-deletion. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 12:01
  • @EdwinAshworth I find that the definition of "zeugma" isn't always entirely clear (different people seem to use that term in different ways), which was why I only mentioned it in a parenthesis. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 17:03
  • It's variously defined, but so is 'syllepsis'. 'Anacoluthon' covers breakdowns in syntax where two structures are infelicitously melded. (Not my DV; the terminology is itself unhelpful here. And OP asks two questions which aren't really consistent. << Is it right? ??What is the name for this sort of relationship? ?? >>) Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 18:15

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