How vs. What

Today I want to briefly address a mistake that is very common among non-native speakers, namely the confusion of How and What … like in forming questions. While I always had a reasonably good intuition when to use which expression, I learned that there is actually some logic behind it.

According to my trusted book  Practical English Usage by M. Swan, How is used to ask about things that typically change (weather, mood, health), whereas What … like is used to enquire about things that usually do not change (looks, character). For example, you would ask

How is John?

if you are interested in John’s current mood (fine, stressed out, sick), whereas

What is John like?

aims at understanding what kind of person he is (charming, funny, …).

Similarly,

How does Jane look today?

refers to her appearance as determined by clothing, make up, etc. In contrast, the answer to

What does Jane look like?

will include her hair colour (which may change, but usually does not daily), her built, etc.

When it comes to asking people about their reactions to certain experiences, either How or What … like is acceptable. For example, you can use both

How is your new job?

and

What is your new job like?

Finally, English allows either How or What … like, but not How … like. Especially German native speakers (the example is inspired by my fellow scientists) often ask incorrectly

How does the function look like?  (Wrong!)

instead of

What does the function look like?

A simple mnemonic that works well for me is that “Like what?”sounds OK, while “Like how?” does not (simply “How?” is fine).

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