how can (reflections)

Roughly 10% of language points in the English Grammar Profile depend heavily on manual interpretation to identify them. That is when the form has many other more frequent uses, and when the use is highly specific. Let’s investigate point 233 in the category of MODALITY.

‘how can’ to reflect, through rhetorical questions.
And how can we improve if we are not allowed to make mistakes, evaluate our experiences in a new light and try again?
But how can each of us stay fit in this world of stress and fast-food restaurants?

Firstly to cast a very wide net to look just at “how can” iWeb does not allow us to search for such frequently occurring points. COCA does.

Searching 9 collocates to the left and right of “how can” on COCA our top 3 entries:

1 POSSIBLY (RR ) 375

A search on google for “how can” + possibly comes up with a Longman dictionary entry:

  • could/can you possibly
  • spoken – used when making a polite request

Not quite the usage area we are hoping for, but in essence, we can see that there is a non-literal meaning already.  Half the examples in the news could be taken literally,  and the others could very much be used for rhetoric.




From intuitive guesses, we could imagine that reflection or rhetoric may be semantically connected to the verb “justify” as in justifying your opinion, especially in the context of whose opinion may “possibly” be more correct of “incorrect.”  These are guesses though.

It would seem maybe we should be looking more narrowly at our examples given in the EGP above.  What do they have in common?  Both of them start the sentence with a conjunction and continue on to an adjective which then gets modified with much more information.  The conditionality in the first is a stronger area to add for a search too.  The first example will be easier since it uses a single pronoun.

iWeb still does not accept the following search:

“conjunction + how can + pronoun” so here now the top 20 results come from the NOW corpus (news on the web) 5 tokens left and right:

1 BUT (CCB ) 4154
2 WE (PPIS2 ) 3799
3 YOU (PPY ) 3121
4 TELL (VVI ) 241
5 FORGET (VVI ) 219
6 SURE (JJ ) 187
7 ANYONE (PN1 ) 183
8 POSSIBLY (RR ) 132
9 EXPECT (VVI ) 116
10 IMPROVE (VVI ) 113
11 FIX (VVI ) 110
12 AVOID (VVI ) 106
13 PROTECT (VVI ) 99
14 PREVENT (VVI ) 91
15 YOURSELF (PPX1 ) 75
16 ACHIEVE (VVI ) 73
17 EXPLAIN (VVI ) 64
18 BLAME (VVI ) 45
20 JUSTIFY (VVI ) 40

Firstly, we see “But how can we” reflects our EGP examples.  Much of our verbs paint similar positive vs negative results too.  Fixing or improving something negative.  Preventing, avoiding or protecting yourself against it.  In essence, overcoming something.  All of these terms seem to suggest a sense of reflection and possibly rhetoric.

Now that we have a more specific string, iWeb allows us to check “But how can we + infinitive as a wild card.”


For this structure we must really dig deeper and look at more of the text to decide if it is reflective / rhetorical.  Here are the first three news stories where our structure exists for a search on “but how can we make”:

  1. Our country has established sectors that have developed well over time, such as banking. That was in line with the necessities of the past. Now we have to ask ourselves this: it is nice to produce and send vehicles all over the world, and it is nice to produce and send white goods, but how can we make them smart? How can we give them more added value? How can we create the software behind them? When it comes to vehicles, everyone can think of cars that go by themselves, which is not enough. We are actually talking about such a big ecosystem that even the software around an electric charging unit really requires serious innovation. As a country, we have to create them. Turkey has been a very important textile center for years. When we were shopping abroad, we saw the infamous “Made in Turkey” text imprinted on the labels of clothes. It is very nice to produce T-shirts and bathrobes, but what about wearable technologies? We have well-trained, quality doctors and medical services in Turkey. But how can we improve this capacity to go parallel with technology? We must find answers to these questions.

  2. What scares me most is our collective silence. So many of us do not even talk about the ecological news with our friends and fellow parents at soccer practice. Floods. Droughts. Wildfires. Melting ice caps. The sixth mass extinction. It is enough to make anyone tune out the problem and quietly hope that someone else solves it. But how can we make sense of these strange times without each other? How can we live Pope Francis’ injunction to “sing as we go,” never letting “our struggles and our concern for this planet take away the joy of our hope” (“Laudato Si’,” No. 244)?

  3. Panellist Andre Calantzopoulos, CEO of Philip Morris International, asked: “How can we make people understand we know what we are doing?”, adding “because politicians come, promise. President Trump can create confusion and that relaxes people to do nothing. We have it every day in our own business. But how can we make people better understand that there is a direction, there is something that can be done?”.

It would seem that in all of these, even when there is a direct quote (direct speech), the questions are framing what is to come.  They seem like questions that might be answered in the text to come in the following paragraphs.  They introduce or frame the following discussion.