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, …).


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?


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).

Testify is not a fancy word for test

I recently came across a scientific paper in which the authors (who struggled with the English language quite a bit throughout the text) used “to testify” instead of “to test”. However, the meaning of these two verbs is very different. According to the OED, to testify means either

1. to make a statement that something happened or that something is true, especially as a witness in court

2. to say that you believe something is true because you have evidence of it

3. to express your belief in God publicly.

If you are interested, I previously discussed a different example for the (often unnecessary) use of fancy words in academic writing here.


When a pair is not a couple

In particular German native speakers seem to have trouble correctly using the words pair and couple when referring to two people (married, or otherwise romantically involved), most likely because both words translate to the German Paar. In fact, the difference between pair and couple is quite subtle. From the Oxford English Dictionary, we have

pair: two people who are doing something together or who have a particular relationship (for example, a pair of students working on a project together)

couple: two people who are seen together, especially if they are married or in a romantic or sexual relationship

While both words can refer to two people who have something to do with each other, only couple is commonly used to describe a romantic relationship. Hence, in the following examples, couple is to be preferred over pair:

The two have been a pair couple since high school.

Married pairs couples fight more frequently.

We only have pairs couples among our friends.

We have been going to pair’s couple‘s therapy for quite some time.

Mail vs. Email

Here is an interesting grammatical fact about the nouns mail and email. In English, mail is an uncountable noun (see here), which means that

Send me a mail

is not grammatical. However, even though email (or E-mail) is a short form of electronic mail, it can be both countable and uncountable (see here). Hence,

Send me an email


I did not receive email today

are both correct. Similarly, we have

He sent me two mails. (Incorrect)
He sent me two emails. (Correct)

To make things worse, in German, both Mail and E-Mail can be countable or uncountable, see here. Hence, is is grammatical to say

Schick mir eine Mail.





KO: German vs English

The abbreviation KO (also K.O.) stands for knock out, and has its origin in the sport of boxing. Interestingly, in colloquial German, KO is often used in phrases such as

Ich bin ein wenig KO (I am a bit exhausted)


Er ist ganz schön KO (He is quite exhausted)

However, I do not remember hearing or seeing a similar use of KO in English, for instance in the form of

I feel really KO today

Instead, words such as tired, exhausted, or knackered are commonly used.

First, it is not clear if there are different degrees of being knocked out. How does a bit knocked out feel compared to just knocked out? At least in boxing, to be knocked out is an absolute and final state. The original meaning of KO may have been blurred when it became part of the German language, thus explaining the above German phrases.

Second, in English, the abbreviation KO is almost exclusively used in written English, and even then it is often spelled out (for example, knock-out price rather than KO price). In contrast, in German, KO is pronounced just like the letters K and O.

Finally, another very common term, namely OK, is used in English and German in very similar ways:

Das ist OK (That is OK)

The myth of excellent English skills

Many job adverts these days ask for excellent English skills, even if the job is in a country where English is not the official language. This requirement is often motivated by the wish of a company to act and appear truly international (the modern word is global), and of course by its business relations in other countries. Remarkably, more and more international companies even switch to English as the official language.

At first sight, all this seems to suggests that people are getting better at English, and of course English (and language) skills in companies have come a long way since, say, fifty or even twenty years ago. However, in my experience, the fact that excellent English skills are mentioned in the job advert does not at all imply that the English skills of the people working in the company are excellent. In fact, very few co-workers impressed me with their English skills, and even though the company asked for certain documents and reports to be written in English, the language was not quite excellent. (For example, if you don’t know that actual is not the English translation of aktuell, your English is certainly not excellent.)

There are a number of interesting questions to ask. First, it is not clear what excellent means in this context (in German job adverts, the word herausragend is often used). Does it simply mean English at the German high-school level, or rather native-speaker level? Is it possible that people with average English skills believe to be excellent? Who would actually claim to have excellent skills in his/her application? (I stick to “advanced”.) At least in my case, there was no test of English skills in the recruitment process. Since when do companies just believe what people claim in their CV? (On the plus side, that means you should not worry if you don’t have excellent English skills and just apply for the job anyway.)

Why use utilize?

Many authors believe that they can impress their readers by using words which are not part of the every-day language. This is particularly true in scientific writing where, in addition to words specific to the field and in general unknown to outsiders, authors often use English words that have simpler forms with exactly the same meaning. Interestingly, many books and essays on the topic of scientific writing strongly suggest not to do that, as it makes your work harder to understand.

A particularly good example is the word utilize, which is often used instead of use, although the two words are synonyms. According to Merriam Webster, utilize is defined as “to make use of”, whereas according to Oxford English, the meaning is “to use something, especially for a practical purpose”.

Some quick research along these lines (a search for utilize in abstracts of the journal Physical Review B) suggests that the majority of papers with the word utilize in the abstract are written by non-native speakers (judging by name and affiliation).