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).

To treat vs. to invite


Inspired by a recent stay in a hotel (see picture), let me point out that there is a subtle but important difference in meaning between the verbs treat and invite. The situation is made even trickier by the fact that other languages (in particular German) do not have this distinction. Consider the following two sentences:

(A) I would like to invite you to dinner.

(B) I would like to treat you to dinner.

In English, (A) does not automatically imply that I will pay for your dinner. All you know is that I want your company. In contrast, (B) means I would like to have dinner with you and will pay for your food and drinks. While this may be confusing, in this case English is actually more precise than, for example, German. In German, the sentence

Ich möchte dich zum Abendessen einladen.

could in principle mean both (A) or (B).

Finally, the typical expression used when the check comes is

It’s my treat.


The many faces of John

John is not only a very common English name, but actually an English word and part of English expressions. Let me tell you about some of the very interesting meanings of John.

First, we have the noun john, which is used (although not in formal English) both for the clients of a prostitute (the British equivalent is punter) and for the toilet (for example, to sit on the john). Then, of course, there is John Doe, a name used to either refer to a male that is supposed to remain anonymous or to an average man (the corresponding name for females is Jane Doe), see here. Finally, I have recently learned that a Dear John letter is a letter written from a woman to her geographically separated partner to inform him about the end of their relationship. The expression has its origin in letters written by women to oversea soldiers, see here.

How to pronounce Python

A python is not just a rather dangerous looking animal. It also gave the name to a very powerful and popular programming language — Python. Having heard different people pronounce Python in different ways, I decided to look up its pronunciation. This is what I found.

In British English, Python is pronounced as [ˈpaɪθən], whereas in American English it is pronounced as [ˈpaɪθɑːn]. Clearly, the o is pronounced very differently, and explains what I had been hearing. You can listen to both variants here.

If English is not your native language, make sure you pronounce the th correctly (at least when speaking English), as explained previously.

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.

Deadly false friends

Today, I want to present three expressions that can lead to serious life-and-death-type misunderstandings. Two of them are false friends (English expressions that are used in German with a very different meaning), and one is a very dangerous literal translation.

Body bag

Whereas a body bag in German is a bag to transport your personal belongings on your body (see here and buy here), in English it is a bag used by the police to transport bodies (see here). Therefore, I suggest that you do not ask for a body bag in your favourite London department store on your next visit, because you may raise some eyebrows.

Public viewing

Public viewings were extremely popular during this year’s FIFA World Cup, but only in German speaking countries. There, a public viewing is a gathering in a public place (town squares, pubs, …) to watch football on television with other people, see here. However, a public viewing in (American) English refers to a dead person’s body being available for public viewing, see here, and English speakers may therefore not understand your enthusiasm for public viewings. The correct English expression for watching football with other people in public (something that is not very common in most other countries) is public screening.

No longer with us

At a conference I attended in England this year, a German native speaker made the following mistake in his talk. While he intended to say

Unfortunately, Mr. X is no longer here.

he instead said

Unfortunately, Mr. X is no longer with us.

The second variant implies that Mr. X had died (see here), which was what most of the English-speaking audience understood judging by their reaction. While the colleague in question had left the conference a day before the talk, he was alive and well, and hence still very much with us.

How to pronounce fasten

During a recent trip, I noticed that many flight attendants mispronounce the word fasten (as in “fasten your seatbelt“), even though they use this word very often (I’ll come back to “often” soon). In contrast to the word fast, the t in fasten is not pronounced. Hence, fasten is pronounced as [ˈfɑːsn] (British English) or as [ˈfæsn] (American English); optional pronunciations are [ˈfɑːsən] and [ˈfæsən]. You can listen to the pronunciation here.

The same logic applies to words such as hasten, chasten, christen, glisten, listen, and moisten. For other pronunciation “rules” regarding the letter t, have a look at this previous post. In contrast, the t in often can be pronounced or not pronounced, see here. (Note that the t follows an f rather than an s as in the above examples). According to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, a survey revealed that about 75% of the people asked pronounce often without a t, and 25% pronounce it with a t.