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On the other hand the edit that fix mistype in "How to" got though community approval.

What is the rule about "How to" and "How do I"? Why are some tutorials called "How to"s?

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Note: found related question on E.SE: english.stackexchange.com/questions/56625/how-to-vs-how-do-i –  Vi. Apr 8 at 13:18

7 Answers 7

up vote 19 down vote accepted

When you are asking a question about how to do something, the preferred way to ask would be to use "How do I..." (or "How can I...", or "Where would I..."):

How do I plant flowers in my garden?
How do I transpose flute music for clarinet?
How can I get my two-year-old to stop misbehaving?
Where can I get more information about asking questions in English?

If I am answering such questions in written form (say, on a blog, or in a book), a good way to summarize this information in a concise title is to use "How to..." (or "Where to..."):

How to plant flowers in your garden
How to transpose flute music for clarinet
How to stop your two-year-old from misbehaving
Where to get more information about asking questions in English

Essentially, How do's are questions, and How to's are declarations.


In the title of a Stack Exchange question, either one can work.

How do I get a mailchimp list name and list id using php?

That works fine; you are essentially asking your question in the title of your question.

How to get a mailchimp list name and list id using php

That works fine, too. You are essentially giving a title to what you hope will be a set of answers to your question.

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2  
The "giving a title for the answers" interpretation doesn't hold up that well. It's very frequent for the title to have a question mark at the end with "how to" phrasing, and if it doesn't, the body frequently uses "how to" phrasing with a question mark. For example, the body of the OP's edited question says, "How to get mailchimp list name and list unique id?" That's definitely ungrammatical. –  user2357112 Apr 7 at 12:27
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I agree that the "How to" phrasing doesn't require – and shouldn't have – a question mark. I still think "giving a title for the answers" is a valid way to entitle a question – even if it does get botched in practice. –  J.R. Apr 7 at 18:40
  • How to do X is not a question but an NP, a clause which behaves like a noun. It has no subject-auxiliary inversion

    I am asking you [how to do X]. Notice the absence of a question mark.

    How to do X works just fine as a title, however. Tutorials are often called How-tos because they don't ask questions but answer them.

    This module teaches you [how to do X].

  • How do I do X? is the corresponding question. It is marked as a question by subject-auxiliary inversion, made possible with do-support (the use of do to supply an auxiliary where one is needed).

    This works just fine as a title, too. (Practically anything works as a title.)

This matter has been often been treated here; here is a very early question on the subject.


Technically, a free relative clause or fused-relative clause. Some linguists go even farther and distinguish this as an embedded question or open interrogative when it plays the semantic role of a question.

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In English, questions are indicated in various ways, including word order. In these cases, the question would be formed by switching the order of the subject and the verb but since they lack an auxiliary verb, they require do-support.

"How to..." is not a question, so if a question is written this way the easiest change (if there is no auxiliary verb) is to insert the necessary "do" and form the question in reference to the asker (referred to as "I").

That said, it's not absolutely necessary that the title of a "question" post actually take the form of a question, so sometimes a description of the problem (or even its expected solution) is used. Similarly, a tutorial can be referred to as a "how-to" because it is not asking a question but instead providing instructions on how to do something.

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I notice that you have a number of questions on your network profile that are "How to" with a question mark.

e.g.

How it's better to invoke gdb from program to print its stacktrace?
How to use git diff --color-words outside a Git repository?
How to get parent PID of a given process in GNU/Linux from command line?

This is ungrammatical, because "How to" is not a question.

There are two ways of correcting this: either remove the question mark, or change it to "How do I...?"

In other words, both

How to use git diff --color-words outside a Git repository

and

How do I use git diff --color-words outside a Git repository?

are fine. Your editors could have chosen either option but they happened to choose the latter.

Personally, I think "How do I...?" sounds more appropriate for the title of a question. "How to" is a declaration and suggests that you are going to tell people how to do whatever it is. So "How to" sounds more appropriate for the title of an answer to me. (This is also why tutorials are called "How tos" - they are telling you how to do something.)

However, that's a personal preference, and as J.R. points out, you can use either - both would be grammatically correct.

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I've scanned though my StackExchange profiles and found 214 "How to ... ?"-titled questions (about 50% overall). Shall I mass-rename them all at once? Or shall we run a system-wide s/How to( .*\?)/How do I \1/g for all questions on StackExchange? –  Vi. Apr 7 at 22:09
    
It's probably not worth bumping 214 questions, particularly if you have to do it by hand. –  snailplane Apr 8 at 6:24
    
Posted the problem here: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/228793/… –  Vi. Apr 8 at 13:15

People often use "How to" rather than "How do I" in Stack Overflow or Stack Exchange questions, because the word "I" gets a scary warning about the question being subjective and may be closed. http://meta.stackexchange.com/q/69769/38765 (Note: I deliberately used bad English in the last paragraph of the question)

As a side note, in general, please don't rely on Stack Overflow content as examples of high quality English!

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So should I mass-rename my own 200+ "How to" questions? don't rely -> The language gets adopted automatically bit by bit when you see the pattern. –  Vi. Apr 8 at 13:09

A better title for this question would be:

When do I write "How to" instead of "How do I"? :D

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BTW the title is already corrected from "Why my ...". –  Vi. Apr 7 at 17:20
    
"When should I write..." –  David Richerby Apr 7 at 21:30

“How to” is often better as it makes the question title shorter so easier to read. However it is not correct English and some people think it is more important to be correct then to effectively

It is often the case on the web and in print design that being shorter is better than being 100% correct, but in speak “How do” sounds very odd to a native English speaker.

(Edits being approved tells you nothing, as so many incorrect edits get approved.)

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I think you have a few typos in this. –  Chenmunka Apr 7 at 12:05

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