Exclamatives or Free relatives

  “Tell us,” said Mahony pertly to the man, “how many have
you yourself?”
  The man smiled as before and said that
when he was our age he had lots of sweethearts.
  “Every boy,” he said, “has a little sweetheart.”
  His attitude on this point struck me as strangely liberal
in a man of his age. In my heart I thought that what he said about
boys and sweethearts was reasonable. But I disliked the words in his
mouth and I wondered why he shivered once or twice as if he feared
something or felt a sudden chill. As he proceeded I noticed that his
accent was good. He began to speak to us about girls, saying
what (1) nice soft hair they had and how (2) soft their hands were and how (3) all girls were not so good as they seemed
to be if one only knew. There was nothing he liked, he said, so much
as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her
beautiful soft hair. He gave me the impression that he was repeating
something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetised by some
words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round
in the same orbit. (James Joyce, Dubliners)

What (1), how (2), and how (3), all, I suspect, exclamatives, at least they are acting as intensifiers. But I don’t find any grounds for it. Are they just free relatives or something intensifying? Or do the free relatives themselves have the intensifying meaning themselves?


This is a very interesting use, on the borderline between ordinary free relative and exclamative.

That is, it is ambiguous whether the man actually said something like “What nice soft hair they have!” “How soft their hands are!” or whether he spoke less vivaciously about what nice soft hair they have and about how soft their hands are.

But the ambiguity is resolved with the final piece: there is no way that how all girls were not so good as they seemed to be can be understood as an exclamative.

  • In the first place, these exclamative uses assert that their complements exhibit some quality in an unusual degree, so they require terms which can sustain a comparison:

    How soft her hair is! … Her hair is softer than other girls’.
    What a man he is! … He exhibits more manliness than other men.

  • In the second place, there must be ‘agreement’ between the head and the complement. What takes a nominal complement, and how takes an adjective, adverb or verb:

    How soft her hair is!
    How well he speaks!
    How she struts!

I don’t think How they are not so good as they seem to be qualifies under either requirement. An exclamatory would have to be something more like:

How much worse they are than they seem!
How wickedly they conceal their true depravity!

Consequently, I read these as ordinary free relatives naming the tenor of the man’s discourse.

Source : Link , Question Author : Listenever , Answer Author : StoneyB on hiatus

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