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.
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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