Grammatically Speaking, December 2006

Hey, Richard,

I've got one for you. I've searched and searched for the answer to this one, but I'm coming up blank.

Why can one say That just goes to show you how good a student he/she is (singular), but it won't fly in the plural? In the plural it would read That just goes to show you what good students they are. One can't say . . . how good students they are. Why not?

Robert Yáñez
Tampa, FL

Dear Bob,

You've definitely come up with a head scratcher--and you've opened up a real can of worms, as you'll see! You think that how can't be used in the plural, but it can be if you add the definite article and eliminate the subject in the verb phrase (How good the students are). More about this further on.

The reason you've had trouble finding an answer is that this is one of those occasions when you have to look at the language objectively rather than prescriptively or proscriptively. You've hit upon a pat phrase, an item in English that is observed and discussed, but not analyzed often because it's so troublesome to analyze.

Without getting into possible poetic styles, the rules for using how and what as intensifiers in the examples you've cited or in exclamatory sentences are as follows. (Why am I thinking of that famous line that Bette Davis says in the classic 1950s movie, All about Eve, "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night"?)

How in an exclamatory sentence:

  • how + adjective (+ singular noun with indefinite article) (+ verb phrase): How dramatic (a view) (it is)!
  • how + adjective (+ plural noun with definite article + verb): How dramatic (the views are)!
  • how + adjective (+ singular or plural noun with zero article + verb): How complicated (language[s] is [are])!

How in a dependent clause:

  • how + adjective (+ singular noun with indefinite article) + verb phrase: You never told me how dramatic (a view) it is.
  • how + adjective + plural noun phrase with definite article + verb: You never told me how dramatic the views are.
  • how + adjective + singular or plural noun with zero article + verb: You never told me how complicated language[s] is [are].

What in an exclamatory sentence:

  • what + indefinite article (+ adjective) + singular countable noun (+ verb phrase): What a (dramatic) view (it is)!
  • what (+ adjective) + plural noun (+ verb phrase): What (dramatic) views (they are)!
  • what + uncountable noun (+ verb phrase): What fun (it is)!

What in a few other select exclamatory sentences, some with expletives:

  • what + definite article + noun: What the ----!

What in a dependent clause:

  • what + indefinite article (+ adjective) + singular noun + verb phrase: You never told me what a (dramatic) view it is.
  • what (+ adjective) + plural noun + verb phrase: You never told me what (dramatic) views they are.

Some people feel that using how emphasizes the descriptive element rather than the subject; that's why you can use how with just an adjective. Some people feel that using whatplaces more focus on the subject or more or less equal focus on the descriptive element and the subject if both are included.

There you go, Bob.


Dear Richard:

I've been teaching ESL for a very long time, and it's fun to get questions I can't answer! In the sentence I'm headed for the beach, what part of speech is headed? Clearly, in I'm heading for the beach, heading is a verb, and in The company is headed by a woman, headed is the past participle in passive voice.

I think that I'm headed for the beach and I'm heading for the beach mean basically the same thing, which is very strange. I can't think of another sentence where you can use the present participle and the past participle and have the meaning be the same. We've all taught the difference between a printing press and printed invitations.

I consulted your ELT grammar book and found "St. Petersburg is located near Tampa" as an oddity, a passive construction for which there is no active counterpart. OK, I buy that. But in my original sentence, is the construction passive? If it isn’t passive, then what is it? And if it's idiomatic, is it a verb or an adjective? Awaiting your illuminating response.

Meg Duvall
St. Petersburg, FL, USA

Dear Meg:

What a wonderful question! And what a wonderful answer that you came up with! It certainly is true that head works very oddly in that there's really no big difference in meaning between saying I'm heading for . . . and I'm headed for . . . , but there is a difference in grammar.

Some verbs have given birth, so to speak, to adjectival forms that have distanced themselves from the original meaning of the verbs they come from. For example, when you sayShe's determined to finish the job on schedule or She's very determined, you’re describing the subject, so you can clearly view determined as an adjective. The use of determinedin this context doesn't rely on the verb to determine. Similarly, to head for is obviously a verb, but to be headed for can be viewed as an adjectival phrase in that it will describe a person or thing (If the company doesn't change its fiscal policies, it's headed for bankruptcy).

By the way, another really odd example is the word rumor. Rumor is a noun, not a verb, and yet It is rumored that . . . is a very common phrase. Talk about strange!

Thanks very much, Meg, for putting such an intriguing verb as head and the adjectival form headed under the spotlight.

Brain Teaser

Here's the Brain Teaser from my September 2006 column:

Look at these two sentences:

They like each other.
They like one another.

Do they mean the same thing or different things? Can you use them interchangeably?

The first acceptable answer was sent in by Joanne C. Pettis of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada:

I think that technically they mean slightly different things. I think that they like each other implies that the feeling is shared between two individuals. They like one anothersuggests that there are more than two in the mutual admiration society.

I think many people use the phrases interchangeably and don't differentiate between them, although some people might argue that the children followed one another out into the playground sounds better than the children followed each other….

You've explained the two phrases very succinctly, Joanne. It's very interesting that, although so many native English speakers use the two phrases interchangeably, when you say something like They like each other, almost everyone pictures just two people. I prefer to keep each other for two people and one another for three or more, but I must concede that it now seems to be acceptable to interchange the two phrases.

Thank you for sending in a great answer, Joanne!

And now for a new Brain Teaser. Look at these phrases:

a pair of pants
a cup of coffee

Are these possessive forms, or aren't they? Is the same thing going on in both phrases, or isn't it? Please e-mail your responses to grammspeaking@aol.com, or send them in by snail mail to

Richard Firsten
c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center
750 NW 20th Street
Miami, FL 33127 USA

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