Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Nancy Stern

Committee Members

Joseph Davis

Matt Garley

Subject Categories



Functional analysis, semantic analysis, English wh-words, Columbia School linguistics, residual member, "how"


This dissertation aims to explain why speakers and writers use how in the communicative contexts in which they do, and its central claim is that how is a signal of one invariant meaning. The form’s diverse communicative contributions can be explained by hypothesizing a single meaning that contributes to different message effects, or contextual interpretations, on different occasions of its use.

The present analysis rests on the crucial distinction in Columbia School (CS) linguistics, the theoretical framework guiding this project, between meaning and message. A meaning is a signal’s invariant semantic contribution, while messages are the context-unique interpretations that stem from, but are underdetermined by, linguistic utterances (Diver, 1975/2012; Huffman, 2001; Stern, 2019, among many others). How contributes to overlapping messages including — though not limited to — degree, characterization/assessment, personal perspective, and manner, but its invariant semantic contribution is a great deal more abstract than any of these things. How’s hypothesized meaning draws on the CS constructs of both substance and value (Diver, 1995/2012; Davis, 2004). Its substance pertains to Elaboration – it signals that additional, elaborating information is pertinent to some aspect of the ongoing discourse. Elaborating information may in principle be relevant in any communicative context, but how explicitly signals that this is so. How’s value (its contrast with other forms) is seen in its membership in the grammatical system of Elaboration, constituted by what are traditionally termed the wh-words (who, what, which, where, when, why and how). Thus, while the other wh-words signal the Relevance of Elaboration with respect to something comparatively specific — a PERSON, ENTITY, LOCATION, TIME, REASON — how signals the Relevance of unspecified Elaboration, or Elaboration (OTHER). In Diverian terms, how is the residual member of its semantic domain (Diver 1978/2012, 1995/2012). It opens the deictic field to its widest setting, signaling that Elaboration in the broadest possible sense is Relevant. It is how’s role as a residual member of a grammatical system that accounts for the widely diverse and heterogeneous message effects that follow from its use. These may involve persons, entities, locations, etc., but the Relevant Elaboration signaled by how never centers on, and is thus never reducible to, any one of these things.

Evidence in favor of this analysis includes both qualitative and quantitative data. The qualitative data spans several sources, including two full length books; quantitative data from a large corpus, the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies, 2008- ), shows that how is more likely to co-occur with other forms that suggest the relevance of Elaboration as part of the communication.

The analysis offered in this dissertation more successfully accounts for how’s distribution than the many categories identified in traditional grammars, and more successfully than the three categories posited in generative syntax — manner adverb, degree adverb and complementizer/conjunction (Willis, 2007; van Gelderen, 2013, 2015). These constructs prove to be analytically unreliable, in that they overlap significantly and exhibit a considerable degree of indeterminacy. They are also descriptively inadequate, in that some attested occurrences of how cannot be accounted for by any of them.

In contrast, the present analysis takes a fresh perspective. Freed from the limitations of sentence-based, traditional categories and based on careful review of attested data, we have discovered that how is a signal with a meaning. The form’s heterogeneous message-effects follow from the invariant meaning proposed here, Elaboration (OTHER) is Relevant — a meaning which is utilized by speakers and writers in pursuit of their communicative goals.

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