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.
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?Email this Post