#14 Using What and How – transcript

In a recent meeting, several coworkers were expressing their ideas and opinions about a new product. I listened very closely, but everyone else was talking so fast I couldn’t add my opinion.  For a long time, I didn’t say anything. Finally, a coworker looked at me and said paul, “How do you think?”

I’m Paul Preston. From Venture English, this is 3 Minute English – a podcast in English about English for English learners. 

Did you notice any problem with the phrase “how do you think?”  You may already know that the correct sentence is “What do you think”. This situation shows how easy it is to confuse ‘what” and “how”. So how do you know which one to use? Well, to be honest, sometimes you just have to memorize the phrases. Of course, the words what and how are both question starters and they do have different meanings. Questions starting with What usually are answered with a thing or idea. For example “What is for dinner?” Pasta. Or what is your name? 

Questions beginning with how are usually answered with identifying a way or manner.  How does this machine work? “Well first turn it on. Then push start.” Or “how did you get here? “I took the train.”

Well, that may be simple enough, but as you already know English doesn’t always follow the rules. The question “what do you think? It is correct because the question is asking for an idea, not a way or manner. What do you think about the product?” I think it is very useful and stylish.  You see the answer is an idea – my opinion about the product. But we also often ask the question How do you feel, as in “how do you feel about the plan?”

How do you feel is actually not asking for a way of¥r method of feeling. No, it is asking for an idea. So according to the rules, it should be what do you feel? but unfortunately how do you feel is an example of an exception you’ll just have to memorize. 

So what about this question: how do you think we should launch the product? Is it correct? Yes, it is. The question “how do you think we should launch the product” is asking for an opinion, but not a general opinion or idea. This time the question asks for a specific type of idea. The way or manner we should launch the product. Since how is used to talk about manner or way.

So a good general rule when deciding whether to use how or what is to decide whether the answer is a concrete thing or idea, or a way or manner. So that reminds me of another common mistake. With our guideline in mind decide which of these sentences is correct? What should I call you? Or How should I call you? Well, the answer I’m looking for is a concrete thing, a name or title. I don’t want to know the “way” I should call you. How should I call you? Would be answered “by telephone” or “by screaming really loud!”

So when deciding to use what or how remember the guideline, use what to find out concrete things or ideas, and how to find out ways or manners of experience. but don’t forget the exception  “how do you feel?”  Your English is going to sound better.

If you have any questions I can answer on 3 Minute English please go to our comments and questions page at venture English.com and leave a comment. I would love to hear from you. Thanks for listening.  I’m Paul Preston. This has been 3 Minute English. 

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