What's going on when words like "what" and "how" are used in the following, non-interrogative and relative-pronoun, way?

"Oh, [how] kind of you! My, [what] a nice young man you've become, love!"

Now, unless I'm an idiot (which is possible,) may I ask what these words are? And what they're doing? As I don't quite understand, and have recently began noticing them popping up more and more in my writing.

I also know these can't be relative-pronouns, as in Japanese, relative-clauses are made by putting the clause behind the noun-phrase being talked about:

"The student went home today." -> "To be the student who went home today."

学生が今日帰った。」 -> 「今日帰った学生だ。

This meaning of course that Japanese doesn't have relative-pronouns. However, Japanese still has these non-interrogative "what" and "how" words, one example being the adverb 何と (nanto).

So ya, what exactly are these words? What exactly do they do to speech? And why do they all seem to be, or be made from, originally interrogative words (何 means "what?")?

I've been looking and haven't found much, thus I ask.

2 Answers 2


What a good question! [sorry, couldn't resist that].

Now seriously, as you said you don't know, neither did I.

So I got to do a quick search on my favorite site [wiktionary] for this kind of questions, it gives you easy technical information to basically every word in the english language or any other language that's available there. It's really useful.

What I learned from it is that:
Those words are said to be adverbs.
And these adverbs function as intensifiers.

Then, when you use those words you are intensifying the meaning of other words, mainly adjectives, ya know That's it. How wonderful.

  • Cool, thx lad! Gonna wait for more answers before marking one, tho.
    – Tirous
    Jun 19, 2017 at 23:10
  • Still not sure why these "intensifiers" all seem to be, or be derived from, interrogatives.
    – Tirous
    Jun 20, 2017 at 15:40
  • I guess I'll just ask that separately. Thx lad!
    – Tirous
    Jun 20, 2017 at 15:42
  • 1
    You are welcome!
    – saviosg
    Jun 20, 2017 at 16:31
  • wiktionary does not give extended etymologic information on these here adverbs. Adverb is the waste basket which holds everything that they haven't yet given a better description.
    – vectory
    Oct 15, 2019 at 17:34

These are exclamative wh-words. Despite their resemblance to interrogative words, they are different, and the clauses they appear in have different syntax. Importantly, exclamative what is an adverb, whereas interrogative what is a determinative or a pronoun. The only two exclamative wh-words in English are how and what. The following examples look similar.

  1. I understood what problems they had. (I understood what the problems were)
  2. I understood what problems they had. (I understood the extent of the problems)

We can differentiate them, however, by making the relevant noun phrases singular:

  1. I understood what problem they had.
  2. I understood what a problem they had.

The evidence here shows interrogative and exclamative what to be semantically and syntactically different items. Because exclamative what is a degree adverb, a bit like such, it modifies the whole noun phrase and must occur before any Determiners as shown in (4). In contrast, the type of interrogative what seen in (3) actually is a Determiner, and appears directly before the noun.

So although these words look like interrogtive wh-words, they aren't!

  • the syntax is slightly different, but these are still question words. maybe they are not honestly interrogative, but rather rhethoric questions. I'm not sure where you derive examples 3 and 4; I don't want to argue for arguments sake, effectively I agree, b-but what a difference does it make? Accepting your idea about degredation, the many / much distinction comes to mind, as well as ideas about indefinitness. Usually I'd say it's the lack of the indefinite article that implies an uncount noun, in which case the article raises it to a type noun (sand vs sands and a sand).
    – vectory
    Oct 15, 2019 at 18:17
  • @vectory I believe you have just proved the point I was trying to make. (It's not my point, of course! ) Exclamative clauses licence SAI, so the SAI in your example what a difference does it make is not sufficient to show it's an interrogative clause (neither's the question mark). And in fact it isn't! What's sufficient to demonstrate this is exactly that the what precedes the article in that noun phrase. If you consider it carefully it becomes clear this isn't a question. Because what could be the answer? "A lot" or "This one!"? No response will make sense as an 'answer' to that Q! Oct 15, 2019 at 18:56
  • @vectory Even rhetorical questions have answers. It's just that the speaker doesn't really want the answer :) Oct 15, 2019 at 18:58
  • Araucaria, I don't strictly disagree with the premediated conclusion, I just think your argument is invalid. I didn't mean to show Subject-Auxiliary-Inversion, I intended to show agreement with your basic premisses, because my phrasing should seem atypical. How you mistook it! This shows two things: The intonation absent from writing makes a difference; It's not at all too different if you accept it without objection. An example to reaffirm my point: "I know answers" vs "I know what an answer is" ~ "I know which answer you want to hear" vs "I know what an answer you want to hear".
    – vectory
    Oct 15, 2019 at 19:26
  • 1
    @Araucaria: Your answer is fine to me (a native speaker). I don't know what problem others have with it. =)
    – user21820
    Oct 21, 2019 at 15:31

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