The difference between HOW and WHAT (20 examples + Video)

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. She wasn’t sure if she should ask “How is he?” or “What is he like?” I turned that lesson into this blog post explaining how to use the question words HOW and WHAT.

HOW questions can ask someone’s opinion or feeling.
How was the movie?” “It was great!
Or the way something is done.
HOW do you get here?” “By bus.”
WHAT questions ask about specific information.
What time is the movie?”
“It starts at 7:30.”

Learn the English Grammar HOW vs. WHAT in this post. Listen to English audio, watch the video, and hear natural sentences spoken by a native speaker. Start confidently using these words in your own English conversations.

A basic guide to the English question words HOW and WHAT (for people)

A basic guide to the English question words HOW and WHAT (for people)

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.
HowWhat
HOW is used if you want to know someone’s health or condition.WHAT is used when you want to know about someone’s character, what kind of person they are.
A: How are you doing?
B: I’m great today, thanks.
A: What is your boss like?
B: He’s nice but strict.

Here is the conversation I had with my student.

  • Student: “Did you ever have a chance to work with anyone famous?”
  • 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?”

The difference between HOW and 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.

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

Some common answers:

  • 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.

Vocabulary

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?
What is Alex like?

~ 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

  • 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.”

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.
BHow 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?
Amazing!
– 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.”

Ving Rhames on IMDB

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

HOW vs. WHAT on YouTube

Listen to the HOW vs. WHAT audio on Soundcloud

HOW and WHAT questions in the news

How questions that mean the way something is done


What questions asking for specific information


Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: