How? / What…like? - for experiences
Sometimes there is not very much difference in use between these two question forms when we are asking about people's experiences:
We can also incorporate an -ing clause into What's it like? when enquiring about experiences:
How was your exam? ~ Fine. I think I did OK.
What was your exam like? ~ Fine. I think I did OK.
What was your holiday like? ~ Not wonderful. The hotel was awful.
How was the weather? ~ Pretty grim. It rained every day.
A similar construction is possible with How?:
What's it like, living in Girona? ~ It's all right. Girona's quite a lively city
What's living in Griona like? ~ Brilliant. Girona's got a lot to offer.
When enquiring about food that has been prepared or eaten, we tend to use How?, although both forms are possible:
How was it, working for Richard Branson? ~ Excellent. He's a very generous employer.
Note that a waiter can only use the How? form when asking about your order:
How were the cakes you made for the children's party? ~ I don't know, but they were all eaten.
How was your steak? ~ Delicious. Very juicy and beautifully tender.
How? / What…like? - for appearance
How would you like your steak? Rare, medium or well done?
Here the How? form is sometimes associated more with positive features and the What...like? form more with neutral or negative features:
How? / What…like? - for health and character
How do I look? ~ Fantastic! That outfit really suits you.
What does she look like? ~ As if she hasn't bought any new clothes in the last twenty years.
I took Andrew with me to the sports club because I wanted to show him what the tennis courts were like.
Here there is a much clearer distinction in use. How? refers to a person's health or mood and What…like? to a person's character:
We also have the expression What are you like! which we can use if we think someone's behaviour is surprising or silly:
How's Bob today? ~ Very tired, I would say. He was out all night at Tricia's party.
What's Bob like? ~ Very sociable. He's the life and soul of any party.
What's his wife like? ~ She's serious and shy. I've never seen her smile.
How is it going? / How are you doing? - for progress
I was up at 4.30 this morning to listen to the dawn chorus. ~ What are you like!
We use these formulas to enquire about the progress that people are making in given situations. Note that we can only use it with going, but we can use the full range of personal pronouns with doing:
How's it going? ~ Oh, quite well. I've nearly finished.
How are they doing? ~ Very well. If they keep this up, they should get through to the finals.
How's he doing? ~ Not too badly. He should be out of hospital by the end of the week.
(Of food that is cooking: How's it doing? ~ It's nearly done. Just another five minutes.)