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What is the difference between:

  1. "How it works?"


  1. "How does it work?"
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How it works is a phrasal noun. How does it work? is an interrogative sentence (question). The former is commonly used as a heading and there is no question mark at the end. –  Kris Feb 20 at 10:20

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Your first example, how it works, is a free relative clause which cannot be used as a question. Your second, How does it work?, is an ordinary question.

What I’m going to call an “interrogative phrase” (IP) is a sort of ‘variable’ which stands for an unknown ‘value’. The IP is headed by a word which defines the ‘type’ of value for which it stands: who, what, which define the type as nominal, how, where, why define the type as adverbial, and the construction what ... do defines the type as a verbal. The IP may also be followed by additional terms which further restrict the type—how many or what sort of machine.

Two sorts of clause employ IPs: questions and free relative clauses. In both sorts of clause the IP represents a constituent of an ordinary declarative clause, ‘moved’ to the beginning of the clause from the place where the constituent would normally stand:
IP Movement

But the two sorts of clause play very different roles, and have different syntactic structures:

  1. A question asks the hearer to supply the value for the variable named by the IP and defined by the remainder of the clause. A question is an independent clause—it can stand on its own.

    The first syntactic rule is that first constituent1 after the IP must be a tensed verb. If the IP stands for the Subject of the clause, nothing has to move, because the IP and the verb are already in these positions:

    But if the IP stands for some other constituent, the tensed verb must fall before the Subject, and a second rule comes into play: the tensed verb must be an Auxiliary. (Grammarians call this subject-auxiliary inversion.) If the ‘canonical’ statement version of the clause does not have an Auxiliary verb, the appropriate form of DO is pressed into service. (Grammarians call this DO-support.)
    Q-AuxInv Thus the proper form for a question using how is this, with both subject-auxiliary inversion and DO-support:  Q-How 1Note that an adjunct—a non-essential syntactic component—is allowed to fall between the IP and the tensed verb: Who recently wrote an app?

  2. A free relative clause does not ask for the value of the IP but designates it—hearers may fill it in from their own knowledge, but an actual value is not required.

    A free relative clause does not call for either inversion or DO-support, regardless of which constituent the IP stands for. After the IP at the beginning, the ‘natural’ order of a declarative sentence is maintained, Subject-Verb-Objects/Complements; the only thing that signals that this is not an ordinary declarative sentence is that something is missing where a constituent was ‘replaced’ by the IP and ‘moved’ to the front.

    A free relative clause is always a dependent clause—it is embedded inside a ‘head’ clause and acts as a noun phrase. In these three examples, the head clause is in ordinary black type; the free relative acts as Direct Object, as Subject, and as the Object of the preposition about.
      (Since DO-support is not in play here the tensed verbs are not distinguished.)FR-Syn How it works, then, with the subject before the verb, is a free relative clause. Here are some examples of how it might be used:  FR-How

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Gorgeous explanations.Thank you. –  Jacob Sep 22 at 10:27
@F.E. I found other matters I had handwaved, too. I think I've fixed it now; I'd value your review. –  StoneyB Oct 13 at 19:11
I think it might be helpful for readers if you changed the main verbs in your examples so that they weren't DO! :) –  Araucaria Oct 15 at 8:06
In the grammar that you are using, is there a difference between a "free relative clause" and a "subordinate open interrogative clause"? -- (It seems that your "free relative clause" might correspond to the 2002 CGEL's "fused relative", or so I'm sorta assuming.) –  F.E. Oct 15 at 18:38
@F.E. It's more or less what CGEL calls a fused relative. I'm sorta dubious about the distinction a lot of people draw between fused/free relatives and "embedded questions" or things of that sort. They're all built the same way and act as NPs. –  StoneyB Oct 15 at 19:27

'How it works' used in an interrogative phrase is something you may not find very commonly spoken amongst native speakers.
Such a sentence construction can be correctly used as an assertive statement (for instance, newspaper headings). Another example is:

Rob knows how it works.

But then again, it may be a part of an interrogative sentence, as in:

Will you tell me how it works?

Here, 'how it works' is correct because it isn't a direct part of the question being asked. The question asked is, "Will you tell me _?" 'How it works' is just that part of the sentence which goes into the blank, as an assertive phrase.

'How does it work' is what you'd say while asking somebody about the way it works. This construction is used in interrogative sentences.

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I'll correct Maulik's second answer:

So now you know how it works, don't you?
How does it work? Do you know?

You see that he sets the expressions in context, which is always very important.

If you're using a sentence fragment rather than a sentence proper in your first example (say as a section heading), you'd drop the question mark (and probably the period):

How it works

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