“How adjective is that? Very adjective, I’d say”

Posted by on January 14, 2013

We welcome back Gill Francis whose insightful blog posts last year attracted lively conversation. Gill will be contributing to the Macmillan Dictionary Blog even more regularly this year: she will share the ‘Monday spot’ with Stan Carey. Gill is a freelance language consultant and writer of resources for teachers and learners of English.

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People can often be heard saying “How sad is THAT”, “How awesome is THAT!”, or “How scary is THAT?”, sometimes in the middle of a lengthy monologue. These phrases are not serious enquiries; they are uttered in an exclamatory, rhetorical way, with emphasis on the pronoun that. They have a clear pragmatic function: to check that your audience is simultaneously keeping up with your narrative and concurring with your opinions.

It was only when I heard an elderly character on the radio soap opera The Archers exclaim “How weird is THAT!” that I really began to notice the sequence or grammatical frame ‘how ADJECTIVE is that’. It certainly sounded oddly self-conscious in this exchange, as if the scriptwriters were showing how easily their senior citizens can get down with the kids.

What range of meanings does the sequence convey, and when did it start edging its way into informal speech and writing? I looked first in the BNC, compiled in the mid-1990s, and could find only two or three matching lines, whereas the 2007 ukWaC corpus contains well over 600. This suggests that it may indeed be a relative newcomer to British English, though the evidence is inconclusive.

The vast majority of the ukWaC lines for ‘how ADJECTIVE is that’ are from spoken sources or online forums, or from advertising contexts. The sequence is usually written or transcribed with final punctuation, typically an exclamation mark, a question mark, or an inspired mixture of the two.

There is a huge variety of adjectives found in this grammatical frame, of which cool is by far the most frequent:

The hotel, though, was a castle. How cool is THAT!?

These adjectives tend to assess a situation in one of three ways – as good, bad, or strange, to put it briefly. The positively oriented adjectives include amazing, brilliant, clever, easy, exciting, fantastic, good, great, lovely, lucky, nice, and wonderful, while the negatively evaluative ones are annoying, awful, boring, embarrassing, ludicrous, sad, scary, stupid, and unfair, amongst others. The ‘strange’ group includes bizarre, bonkers, crazy, daft, insane, mad, spooky, surreal, and weird.

It seems that not only is the frame relatively new, but it features several recently-coined adjectives as well as adjectives whose meanings have shifted slightly; among these are fab, funky, geeky, kewl (an alternative spelling of cool, apparently), awesome, sick, sad, and sweet.

I fell in love with a figure in a dream – how sad is THAT.
Group packages are available: if you buy 10 tickets you get one free! How sweet is THAT?

Often the sequence is used with heavy irony:

They were selling organic asparagus from Thailand in the middle of the British season. How clever is THAT?

There is a useful point here for the teaching and learning of lexis. If you start not with the target lexical items but with a grammatical frame like ‘How ADJECTIVE is that’, you can discover for yourself the range of adjectives it selects. In Skylight, for example, you’d key in the query ‘how * is that’, sort the resulting concordance lines alphabetically, and see what the frame has captured. So you could identify at a glance, say, the adjectives used to enthuse about a situation – amazing, brilliant, fantastic, and the rest. Then your next question could be “Do these adjectives share other contexts too?”

This approach recognises that a word class is simply a collection of items that share similar behaviour, so all the lexical items in this particular frame are by definition adjectives, or they wouldn’t be there. Thus in “How rubbish is THAT”, and “How genius is THAT”, both rubbish and genius are adjectives, although not all dictionaries define them as such.

This little grammatical frame shows how even the most common words in English are changing imperceptibly. In this case how and that have been quietly forming new combinations and making alliances with adjectives of the younger sort, until the frame finally surfaced into people’s consciousness. The anti-change community are just beginning to voice their objections – now how predictable is THAT?

Comments (10)
  • The styling ‘cool’ seems to go on and on! Did it begin in the US with the 50s Beat Generation? or the 20s Jazz culture?

    Is the form ‘how * is that’ another of the ways of doing extra emphasis – do people say ‘how super cool is that’?

    Posted by Andy on 15th January, 2013
  • I agree the sequence is emphatic; its purpose is often to re-awaken the reader’s interest. Here, in examples from a ballet magazine and a fanzine, the word ‘cool’ is recycled two or three times:

    “I even have an assistant, Marina (a first year on the teaching degree and absolutely lovely), to help me out. How cool is THAT? Damn cool, actually.”

    “…drummer Sam came to ask Paul, the singer, for a light middleway through NYC’s solo. How cool is THAT?! Really cool. The only uncool thing was…”

    I have no idea how much ‘cool’ is used now compared with 2007; my son reckons it is uncool to use ‘cool’ – he’d say ‘safe’ or ‘sweet’. But the word ‘uncool’ is sweet.

    Posted by Gill on 15th January, 2013
  • “These phrases are not serious enquires. . .” How unspellcheck is THAT?

    ‘Enquires’ is not a noun. It’s the present tense of the verb infinitive ‘to inquire’.
    The plural of the singular noun ‘inquiry’ is ‘inquiries’ — the Royal Commission or inquest sort of inquiry, not the deadly serious enquiry ‘How pedantic is THAT?’.

    But once upon a time before dictionaries became promiscuous collectors of illiteracies, MS Word’s spellchecker would try to suggest ‘enquires’ or ‘inquires’ whenever we typed ‘enquiries’. The result is that two generations of officially grammar-deprived Australians are now convinced that ‘enquires’ is a noun.
    Of course it is, we say. Like the invites to a party. And how more fun is THAT?

    Posted by Christina Ratcliffe on 15th January, 2013
  • Yes, this was a typo – ‘enquires’ should have been ‘enquiries’ [now fixed]. Occasionally one of these gets past us. But I wouldn’t say that ‘enquires’ is an inflection of the verb ‘to inquire’. In British English ‘inquire’ and ‘enquire’ are both verbs; ‘inquiry’ and ‘enquiry’ are both nouns (of which ‘enquiry’ far more frequent). The SOED makes a distinction in meaning, but as this is a bit off-topic, I’ll stop here.

    Posted by Gill on 15th January, 2013
  • A slightly similar – and equally rhetorical – formulation I’ve noticed a fair bit is: How stupid am I?/How hot is Jake Gyllenhaal? etc.

    As with How X is THAT, the form is that of a question but the intention is emphatic and seeks confirmation (or sympathetic recognition) from the listener/reader.

    Of course there is a standard emphatic formula with ‘how’ – How stupid I am! How hot JG is! – but in the case of the ‘new’ formula the order of the verb and pronoun is reversed.

    Any thoughts on this one?

    Posted by Liz on 17th January, 2013
  • might the difference be, and what might the choice depend on?
    What I would suggest, and have done in my writing in the past, is that the request for information formally inherent in the ‘interrogative’ here, does, again formally, invite or allow a response from the listener. And to satisfy the ‘request’, the expected response would be a high degree of the quality expressed by the adjective in question. You actually indirectly make that point in your title ‘Very adjective I’d say’.
    So although the listener understands the pragmatics of an utterance such as How cool is THAT? in the sense that they know the speaker is not really asking for a response, they also know that the answer to the ‘question’ is something like Very cool indeed. The speaker can be considered to be seeking tacit consensus in a ‘silent’ response that provides the high degree of adjectival quality.

    Posted by Gordon on 18th January, 2013
  • (Apologies to all. The first part of my comment above managed to get deleted, so here it is now.)

    Hi Gill,
    The use of interrogative word order here (How X is that?), in what you rightfully point out to be an expression that has an exclamatory, rhetorical function and not requiring or expecting a response from the listener/reader, is still, I think, significant.
    The actual grammatical structure IS interrogative, in contrast to the ‘exclamative mood’ word order ‘How X that is?, so the speaker has a mood choice between ‘interrogative’ and ‘exclamative’.

    Posted by Gordon on 18th January, 2013
  • Hi Gordon: Yes, you’re spot-on of course: the choice of interrogative mood is meaningful. I didn’t have space to say that often the speaker goes right ahead with the ‘answer’; hence my title. But see the reply to the first comment above, where I gave two examples of this: one is “How cool is THAT? Damn cool, actually”. Both examples came from magazines, so I assume the writer is simulating a real conversation, and that here the reader is implicated in a fabricated consensus that there’s a high degree of cool involved in ‘having a lovely assistant’. (I’d call it pretty damn sexist.)

    Posted by Gill on 18th January, 2013
  • P.S. to reply to Gordon: I meant that the remark was sexist, not the fact that the speaker has a new assistant. I’ll repeat the example: “I even have an assistant, Marina (a first year on the teaching degree and absolutely lovely), to help me out. How cool is THAT? Damn cool, actually.”

    Posted by Gill on 18th January, 2013
  • Interesting post, Gill. One difference between ‘How X is THAT?’ and ‘How X that is!’ is obviously that one is informal/modern and the other is formal/old-fashioned. The neutral thing to say is ‘Isn’t that X?’ or ‘That’s so X!’ Another informal modern formulation you might like to consider is ‘X or what?’ (or ‘Is that X or what?’) eg ‘Pathetic or what?’ And then there’s the very emphatic ‘Is that X or is that X?’, where the adjective is repeated – eg ‘Is that great or is that great?’

    Posted by Elizabeth Manning on 25th January, 2013
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