Whether an instance of "why" is a noun or an adverb


In this sentence written by Samuel Clemens, I am really uncertain whether the "why" acts as a noun or as an adverb.  "Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral?"  (His answer is "It is because we are not the person involved.")


I'm using the short Essential English Grammar (Dover) as my basic guide.  After rooting through it, I am tempted to call Clemens's "why" a noun, a reflection on the other side of "is" of the "it."  


I wouldn't be asking unless someone disagreed with me and was working hard to show me my error.  If I'm wrong, no problem.  I'd just like to a have a reasoned explanation from an expert or two.

asked Feb 01 '13 at 17:38 AB New member

2 answers


This is definitely the most interesting question I have ever read here.  ESL/EFL teachers like myself tend to identity question-words like why, what, when, how, etc. as WH-question words without considering which part of speech they are.  Your question has prompted me to, for the very first time, consult a couple reputable online dictionaries, Longman and Oxford, both of which categorize why in a question as an adverb.  Oxford more specifically terms it an interrogative adverb


Whether or not there might be a more appropriate grammatical term for why when it is followed by is it in a question, well, that is a most interesting question.  Both Longman and Oxford classify why, especially the plural form whys, as a noun in positive sentences with set phrases like the whys and wherefores, but call it an adverb in the question form.


I look forward to hearing others' opinions on this most interesting question.  

link comment answered Feb 01 '13 at 17:57 Shawn Mooney Expert

I would go with an interrogative adverb, also. The structure of a question is often reversed from a declarative sentence which makes it harder to determine what function a word performs in the sentence.

Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral?

I would call 'it' the subject and 'that we rejoice...' a dependent noun clause used as a predicate nominitive. 'It'='that we rejoice...' That leaves 'why' with no home as a noun, so it must be an adverb.

All of the references citing 'why' as a noun used 'whys and wherefores' as an example, and an adverb in a question.

link comment answered Feb 01 '13 at 18:08 Lewis Neidhardt Grammarly Fellow

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