What Part of Speech Is ‘How’?

A word doesn’t necessarily belong to a particular part of speech. Depending on how it is used in a sentence, a word can belong to more than one part of speech. For example, word view can be an adverb, a verb, a preposition, or an adjective:

We view these protests as mere publicity stunt. [Verb]

If you ask our view, these protests are mere publicity stunt. [Noun]

How is known mainly as a question word, but what grammatical roles does it play in sentences. In this post, we’ll analyze the word how grammatically, especially looking at the two parts of speech it belongs to: adverb and noun. We’ll also look at few parts of speech it doesn’t belong to, but few erroneously think it does. And all this with plenty of examples.

The first section looks at how in its role of asking questions.

1. Is ‘how’ an adverb?


It can function as an interrogative adverb: interrogative because it is in the form of a question and adverb because it conveys few types of adverbial information. Unlike when and where, which convey only one type of adverbial information (time and place, respectively), how can convey more than one type of adverbial information: manner (how fast?), time (how soon?), degree (how good?), etc. If you recall, adverbs convey information about time, place, manner, degree, reason, etc. The most common interrogative adverbs are when, where, why, and how. Examples:

How are you doing?

How quickly can you finish the task?

How much does this cost?

Note that how can also act as interrogative adverb in sentences where it’s not a question word. This has been covered later (under conjunction or subordinating conjunction subcategory) because it doesn’t belong to the direct question category. Examples:

(Comments that go with examples are in square brackets.)

I know how noun clause works. [Comment: The underlined part is a noun clause.]

I advised my friend on how to improve his fitness. [Not a clause]

In the first section, we looked at how in its role of asking questions. But how can also connect parts of a sentence. Conjunctions, relative pronouns, and prepositions are the most common grammatical tools to connect one part of a sentence to the other. In the next three sections, let’s examine if how belongs to any of these three parts of speech.

2. Is ‘how’ a conjunction or subordinating conjunction?

(Note that subordinating conjunction is a subcategory of conjunction. If a word is subordinating conjunction, it’ll certainly be conjunction.)


The answer may have come as a surprise to you. When how introduces a dependent clause and joins it to an independent clause, it is commonly treated as a conjunction or subordinating conjunction. But from grammatical perspective, it is not. Let’s dig this up in detail as there is lot of confusion on this point.

What’s a conjunction?

A conjunction is a part of speech that mainly joins clauses but can also join words or phrases. Whereas coordinating conjunctions join grammatically equal elements, subordinating conjunctions introduce dependent clauses and join them to independent clauses. But to be a conjunction, the word can’t play another grammatical role (noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.) in the clause it introduces. After all, the very same word in the very same sentence can’t be two different parts of speech. Don’t forget that conjunction is one of the eight parts of speech.

There are three types of dependent clauses: adverb clause, relative clause, and noun clause. Here is a summary of whether the connector (we’ll see if it’s a conjunction or not) plays a grammatical role in the clause it introduces.

  1. Adverb clause: No connector joining an adverb clause to an independent clause plays a grammatical role in the adverb clause it introduces. Hence, they’re conjunctions. And because they make the clause dependent (or make it subordinate), they can be further subclassified as subordinating conjunctions. Examples: because, since, after, before, while, when, until, etc.
  2. Relative clause: All connectors joining a relative clause to an independent clause play a grammatical role in the relative clause they introduce. (They play the role of pronoun and adverb, which gives these connectors the name relative pronoun and relative adverb.) Hence, they’re not even conjunctions, let alone coordinating or subordinating.
  3. Noun clause: The situation is mixed in noun clauses. Some connectors joining a noun clause to an independent clause play a role in the noun clause they introduce and some don’t. Those that don’t play a role (if, whether, and that) are subordinating conjunctions. Others are not.

You can call connectors that are not subordinating conjunctions as subordinators (even though not conjunction, they subordinate the clause they introduce), which would include relative pronouns, relative adverbs, and other connectors (except if, whether, and that) that introduce noun clauses.

With that out of the way, let’s come back to whether how is a conjunction or a subordinating conjunction. Now, how introduces only noun clauses.

In case of noun clause, how plays the role of interrogative adverb, just like its role in asking direct questions that we saw earlier. It’s not surprising because noun clauses are often indirect questions. Examples:

I know how noun clause works. [The noun clause has been underlined.]

How I passed the test is a story in itself.

Since how plays a role (adverb) in the clause it introduces, it’s not a conjunction, let alone a subordinating conjunction. You can call it a subordinator or other similar term, which BTW is just an informal term, to denote its role in subordinating the noun clause.

Common error: People mistakenly treat how introducing noun clauses as conjunction or subordinating conjunction. That’s because, in common parlance, the term conjunction is associated with any word that joins two clauses and the term subordinating conjunction with any word that joins a dependent clause to an independent clause. People forget to take into account that it can play another part of speech in the dependent clause, in which case it can’t be a conjunction or subordinating conjunction.

3. Is ‘how’ a relative pronoun?


It’s not a relative pronoun. And unlike other interrogative adverbs such as when, where, and why, it’s not a relative adverb. You can’t have an antecedent noun to which a relative clause introduced by how can point.

4. Is ‘how’ a preposition?


Few confuse how with prepositions mainly because both connect two parts of a sentence and both can precede a noun or pronoun. A case in point:

In spite of his average performance, he got promoted.

How he got promoted is beyond belief.

In both the sentences, in spite of and how connect two parts of the sentence and are followed by a noun or noun phrase. If in spite of is a preposition, then why isn’t how.

Looking at only the succeeding noun or noun phrase, though, doesn’t present a holistic picture. This does:

In spite of his average performance, he got promoted.

How he got promoted is beyond belief.

In the second sentence, the noun clause introduced by how works as a unit. In other words, how doesn’t come with just the noun phrase he but lot more, a clause.

From the above examples, you’d realize that mere presence of a noun or noun phrase after a word doesn’t mean it’s a preposition. Adjectives can be followed by a noun or noun phrase. So can others be. But we’ve to look at the holistic picture.

Bottomline, how is not a preposition. And because it’s not a preposition, it can’t initiate a prepositional phrase.

So far, we’ve looked at role of how in asking questions and connecting parts of a sentence. Let’s now examine the final two pieces.

5. Is ‘how’ a noun?


How can sometimes function as a noun. Examples:

The mother struggled to answer the whys and hows of the kid.

I’ve always been more interested in the how of any recipe.

6. Is ‘how’ a verb?

Although rarely, some raise question about how being a verb.

Is it a verb? Not even remotely!

We can murmur. We can talk. We can chant. We can sing.

But can we how?

How doesn’t do any action. Hence, it’s not a verb.

Another test you can run is to check if how has past, past participle, and present participle forms like verbs do.

Can we’ve the words howed or howing, assuming it to be a regular verb?

No. Hence, it’s not a verb.

Few also confuse how with linking verb probably because of its role in linking (or joining) a dependent clause to an independent clause. But it’s not a linking verb. As we saw earlier, how acts as a connector (more specifically, a subordinator) in its role in linking a dependent clause to an independent clause.


How mainly functions as an adverb, but it can function as a noun in rare occasions:

How much does this cost? [Interrogative adverb]

I don’t know how much does this cost? [Interrogative adverb in noun clause. It’s not a conjunction or subordinating conjunction introducing the noun clause.]

This item is so expensive. Can anyone tell me the how and why of its price? [Noun]

The post you just went through belongs to the broader topic of parts of speech. Explore the topic further on this dedicated resource page:

Resource: Parts of Speech

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Anil Yadav

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