What vs. how



How do you explain to the students the difference between what and how?

One example:

"What is this called in English?" and not "How is it called in English?"

Is the reason due to Spanish or Portuguese interference?


Vera Mello


In the sentence "What is this called in English?" the speaker is looking for the name of something to be substituted for the pronoun what. The speaker needs a noun or noun construction to identify the thing that the word what refers to:

This is called a wrench.
This is called doing an about-face.
This is called a sweet deal.

In contrast, "How is it called in English?" does not make sense. How asks for information about the manner of doing something, or the degree or quantity of something, as in:

How is she managing since her husband died?
(Pretty well.)

How do you get there from here?
(Take the interstate highway all the way.)

How can I reach you?
(The best way is by e-mail.)

How long will it take?
(About an hour.)

It's understandable that interference from Spanish or Portuguese would cause confusion here. Sometimes students want to use the word how to ask the meaning; they use a literal translation from their native language. They can use how in the question:

How do you say that in English?

This asks for the way to say something. The questioner is not necessarily looking for the name of something, although he/she might be.

To simplify, you could explain that

"How do you say that?" asks for a word, a phrase, a sentence or a paraphrase. It is quite comprehensive.

"What do you call that?" asks for a noun or noun construction. It's very specific.

"How do you call that?" is incorrect.