How to use HOW vs. WHAT (real examples + video)

English Grammar HOW vs. WHAT

Learn the English Grammar HOW vs. WHAT in this post. Listen to English audio, watch the video, and use these words like a native speaker. Listening to natural sentences spoken by a native speaker.

A link to the audio file on SoundCloud is also at the bottom of this post.

This is a basic guide to using the English question words HOW and WHAT.

HOW is used if you want to know someone’s health or condition.

How is Alex?
He’s doing great.

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

What is Alex like?
He’s nice.


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. (In Toronto, Canada I worked as a stuntman before I moved to Japan in 2006.)

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…
Whats he like?”

English Grammar HOW vs. WHAT
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!

English Grammar HOW vs. WHAT – HOW

Please read the following examples:

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

How is Alex?

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

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.

We also use HOW to find out about someone’s health, especially if they have been ill recently or were injured.

A: Calvin just came home from the hospital after knee surgery.
B: How is he?
A: He has to walk with crutches for a few weeks but the surgery went well. His knee will be back to normal in a few months.

A: One of Brandon’s coworkers tested positive for Covid-19. How is Brandon?
B: He has no symptoms but he has to quarantine for 14 days.


symptom noun a change in your body or mind that shows that you are not healthy
Symptoms include a headache and sore throat.”

quarantine noun ​a period of time when an animal or a person that has or may have a disease is kept away from others in order to prevent the disease from spreading
“The dog was kept in quarantine for six weeks.”

It’s also common to use HOW to ask about someone’s mental or emotional condition.

A: Lisa’s grandmother passed away last month. 
B: That’s too bad, I know they were close. How is Lisa doing?
A: She is sad of course, but she is doing okay.
B: Let’s take her out tonight, she should be around friends during this time.

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

English Grammar HOW vs. WHAT – WHAT

Another friend who has never met Alex might ask me:

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

English Grammar HOW vs. WHAT – Other questions


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!”

English Grammar HOW vs. 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.”

How and What questions are not only for people

These question words are commonly used to ask about other things too.
How was the concert? = How was the experience of being at the concert.

A: I rode the new ride at Disney last week.
B: How was it?

Compare these HOW and WHAT questions 

HOW questions can be answered with adjectives that describe condition.

How was the movie?
It was great!
It was boring.
The movie was hard to understand. 
The movie is very funny.

What questions may need a longer answer.

What is the movie about?
It’s about a man who finds a magic coin.
It’s a comedy about a couple planning their wedding.
The movie is based on the story of Abraham Lincoln.

How was your vacation to Hawaii?

It was great.
It was okay but it rained a lot.

What did you do on your vacation? OR What did you do in Hawaii?

I went shopping every day.
We got to swim with sea turtles, it was so much fun.
I went to a traditional Hawaiian luau and ate great food.

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.”

English Grammar HOW vs. WHAT

Ving Rhames on IMDB

Watch the video below to review the grammar and improve your English listening skills! Click the image ⇩

Click HERE

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1 thought on “How to use HOW vs. WHAT (real examples + video)”

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