The Grammarphobia Blog

“How to” management

Q: Is there any reason to use the subordinate conjunction “how” after a verb of being? Here’s my example: “The challenge with freelancing is how to manage all of these issues.” The “how” doesn’t seem necessary, but is it grammatically incorrect? I’m perplexed.

A: The construction you use (“how” following “is”) isn’t necessary – there are other ways to phrase the sentence – but it’s not grammatically incorrect either. The “how” in this kind of construction isn’t a conjunction but an adverb.

First, a grammar refresher. The verb “be” is seldom used by itself. It usually connects the subject with some kind of description. Because it’s often a mere connection, it’s called a “copula” or linking verb.

A linking verb lets us connect the subject with what we state or affirm about it. What we state (or predicate) is called the predicate. And several different kinds of predicates can follow “is”: a predicate noun, adjective, adverb, or prepositional phrase.

For example, your sentence, which I’ve simplified for purposes of illustration, could be phrased at least three ways and still be grammatically correct. All of the italic phrases in the three examples below act as predicate nouns:

(1) “The challenge is how to manage these issues” (though “how” is an adverb here, the entire phrase functions as a predicate noun).

(2) “The challenge is to manage these issues” (infinitive phrase functioning as a predicate noun).

(3) “The challenge is managing these issues” (gerund phrase functioning as a predicate noun).

In those three sentences, you could easily swap subject and predicate (“Managing these issues is the challenge”).

Now here are examples of “is” followed by a predicate adjective, adverb, and prepositional phrase:

(4) “The challenge is difficult” (adjective).

(5) “The challenge is here” (adverb).

(6) “The challenge is on the table” (prepositional phrase).

Now, back to your question. The Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry on the adverb “how,” explains that the word can be used in front of an infinitive to mean “in what way” or “by what means.”

A search of the OED‘s citations turns up dozens of such usages. Here are some of them:

1621: “His Colophon is how to resist and repress Atheism.”

1689: “All their consult is how to cheat him.”

1754: “The Difficulty is, how to apply this Rule.”

1885: “One thing he can never learn, and that is how to vacate.”

1902: “The problem is how to give normal emotional channelization.”

1958: “One of the main problems the Russians are wrestling with to-day is how to achieve ‘gracious living.’”

1961: “The subject of this paper is … how to analyse linguistic signs.”

1963: “What we’re going on with now, muchachos … is how to catch squid.”

I hope this clarifies things, and that I haven’t just muddied the waters. I apologize for all the grammatical terminology – something I usually keep to a minimum on the blog. But you asked for it!

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