English Grammar – HOW vs. WHAT (real life examples)

This post idea came from a question asked by one of my private students. She asked me if I ever met anyone famous when I worked as a stuntman.
Me: “I got to work with Ving Rhames once.”
Student: “How is he?”
I know what my student meant, but this is not natural in conversation. A better question would be…
What‘s he like?”

English Grammar - HOW vs. WHAT

We spent some time learning how to use the question words HOW and WHAT in natural English conversation. I thought this would make a great blog post topic. Other English students probably have the same questions. I’m sure it can help you too!

HOW

My friend Alex visited Japan from Canada last week. A friend of mine also knows Alex but, he didn’t have the chance to meet him. He asked me:

How is Alex?

~ HOW is used if you want to know someone’s health or condition. Some common answers:

How is Alex?
English Grammar - HOW vs. WHAT
  • He’s good.
  • He’s doing great.
  • He was tired. It must be a busy trip.

It’s also natural to include any current news from the person’s life:

  • He’s good. He got a new job.
  • He’s doing great, he’s getting married this summer.
  • He’s awesome, he just got his black belt in jiujitsu.

This is the same way you would answer the question if someone asked- “How are you?”

WHAT

Another friend who has never met Alex might ask me:

What is Alex like?

What is Alex like?
English Grammar - HOW vs. WHAT

~ WHAT is used when you want to know about someone’s character, what kind of person they are. Some common answers:

  • He’s nice.
  • He’s funny.
  • He’s really smart.

You can also include anything about the person’s life that you think is interesting or related to their character.

  • He’s funny. We came to Japan together 15 years ago and we had so much fun.
  • He’s nice. He works in film and TV.
  • He is cool. He has a black belt in jiujitsu.

Other questions with HOW and WHAT

HOW

How did Alex look when you saw him?

~ This is used when you want to talk about a person’s appearance, haircut, style, etc. (Things that can change)

“He looked great! He lost 8 kilograms!”

At work:

A: “I just saw the boss come into the office.”

B: “How did he look?”

A: “Angry! Everyone look busy!”

WHAT

I will meet Alex tomorrow for lunch. What does he look like? (meeting for the first time.)

~ This is used to describe someone’s physical characteristics like height, weight, eye color, hair color, etc. (Things that don’t change very often)

“He is about 175 cm tall with short dark hair.”


My original conversation with my student went like this…

Me: “I got to work with Ving Rhames once.”

Student: “What was he like?”

Me: “He was very nice. He seemed to really like Toronto, he was thinking about buying a house there.”

Ving Rhames on IMDB https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000609/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1

From Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries

What – https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/what?q=What How – https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/how?q=How


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