I'm trying to figure out what kind of grammatical objects the words "what" and "how" are in the following sentences:

What an idiot!
What a surprise.
What strange people.
How odd.
How interesting.
How absurd.

In these contexts, what is not functioning as either an interrogative pronoun or a reflexive pronoun, and neither is it functioning as an abbreviation for "that which". The above examples are complete sentences. But ... shouldn't all sentences have a verb? So ... EITHER "What" is functioning as a verb, OR there is some heavy ellipsis going on, with (at least) a whole verb removed. The object following "what" may be either singular, plural or continuous, but seems always to be indefinite - nobody ever says "What the idiot". Furthermore, "What a ..." is an indicative statement, not a question.

I have similar difficulty in understanding the function of the word "How" in the latter three examples. The object following it is merely an adjective, yet these are also complete sentences. If "how" is interrogative, what does it stand for? Where is the verb in these sentences? Is "How" functioning as the verb, or is there some seriously heavy ellipsis going on?

Another possibility which occurs to me is that these sentences don't actually follow conventional rules at all, that they are simply anomolies with rules of their own.

But ... I don't know, and I'd really like to find out.
Anyone have any clues? Theories?

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Comments  (Page 2) 
Yes, of course. That's what WHL was saying. But they follow a pattern, and so that patten must have had a history, an evolution. Whole sets of phrases like that with parallel structure don't just appear out of nowhere. Something must have existed before it, and whatever it was, it probably complied with the rules of grammar at the time. I'm just interested in such anomolies, that's all. Maybe it won't squeeze into today's rules, but I'd put good money on the notion that it did, once upon a time.

In any case, I've now got some new sentences for us to consider:
I always knew what an idiot he was.

I always knew how interesting it could be.

NOW we can get serious - these are not idomatic phrases, they are real sentences, even in today's world (thanks to maj and Chameleon for the idea). Now my question becomes: What role to "what" and "how" play in these sentences?

I can tell you what they're not. "What" is NOT an abbreviation for "that which". It is not being used as either a determiner or a pronoun, either reflexively or interrogatively. "How" normally means "[by] which means", but it doesn't mean that here (- in fact, it seems to be acting as a preposition). My suspicion is aroused by the fact that both of these situations involve question words, and now, I'm starting to wonder whether other question words may play a similar role?

Why, it's Mr Smith. How good to meet you. What a pleasure.
(But let's focus our attention on the examples above, which I assume we can agree are sentences).

I might have had a revelation lying in bed this morning... Emotion: smile

What if "what" and "how" are contractions of "what kind of" and "how much of"? That would at least make them label-able parts of speech and still retains meaning. In that case, the exclamation:

"What an idiot!"

Is really a rhetorical question:

"What (kind of) an idiot (is he)?!"

Notice that there is a one-for-one substitution possible with the two phrases in any situation.

"What an idiot!"

"What kind of an idiot is he?!"
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That works!

It doesn't have to be a question though, not even a rhetorical one. If "what" and "how" are being used reflexively to refer to something already previously established then it could be straightforward indicative statement. Certainly, in "I always knew what an idiot he was" ... expanding that out to "I always knew what kind of an idiot he was" - if "what" is reflexive then it would basically be saying "I always knew that he was that kind of an idiot".

It works. It really works. Chameleon, you're a genius!

How about this then;
It's a nice day today, eh what!
Nice work, everyone. Would just like to add that the completion of the above sentence with the words "eh what" is acceptabe only as Canadian jargon. Nauseating, really. J.
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