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I'm currently doing a presentation and I have a slide where I show some speech examples from English speakers who have a certain type of pathological speech. I wrote the title "How does X speech sound like?" rather than "What does X speech sound like?". My supervisor suggested the latter so I'm not sure what would be the right one, or which one is correct so I looked around a bit.

Second language learner perspective

In my own native language, this sentence would be "Hogyan hangzik X beszed?" and the sentence " I suspected first that (as often with Dutch) that this would be another case of Dunglish but it's actually not because in Dutch you would say "Hoe klinkt het?", which would word-by-word translate to "How sounds it?"

Community resources

There is a language community website, where a replier states that "what" usually refers to a thing while "how" refers to the qualities of the thing. In this case, the listeners know that this is speech X and we are interested about bad articulation, speech rate, intelligibility and tones.

Based on this, I think "how" is the correct one, but on the other hand the conscious language use of my supervisor against its own native language indicates me that there might be something more going on.

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    This is the model of a well-asked ELL question. Welcome to ELL! – Fivesideddice Sep 24 at 11:06
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    We would say 'How does it sound?' (the literal translation of 'Hoe klinkt het?', but 'What does it sound like?' – Kate Bunting Sep 24 at 11:40
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"How does it sound like?" (this is incorrect)

Native speakers understand this but they immediately know that this is a non-native speaker.

You can say one of the following. They can mean the same thing but they can be different according to the context.

What does it sound like?

This often means that there is some other exemplar that "it" sounds similar to.

"I can hear an animal making a noise."

"What does it sound like?

"It sounds like a cow mooing"


How does it sound?

This is an open-ended question. It does not compare to some other sound.

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    Can you use "How does it sound" in the context of the original question? I'm struggling to come up with an instance in which I might use it there (and perhaps your point was that you shouldn't). The only time I can see using it is when asking for a qualitative opinion: "I heard you have the new super quiet fan, how does it sound?" – MikeH Sep 24 at 20:10
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    @MikeH if the question is like "How does this [example of pathological speech] sound?" then answers could be like "It sound good" (a good example). Like they're asking for a qualitative ranking of the example as opposed to a comparision to other examples. – Brad Sep 24 at 20:25
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    "Native speakers understand this but they immediately know that this is a non-native speaker." Or that it's a native speaker who's misspoken or changed the sentence they were trying to say half way through. – nick012000 Sep 25 at 5:10
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    Notice that if you take the conversion from the Dutch to the incorrect English "How sounds it", and then modify that to get grammatical English, you end up with "How does it sound". You don't get "How does it sound like." – Mark Foskey Sep 26 at 5:20
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    @MikeH Some examples might be - “I bought a new guitar.” “How does it sound?” - “My child has a nasty cough.” “How does it sound?” - Hope that helps. – jwpfox Sep 26 at 5:25
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You are correct that "what" refers to a thing, whereas "how" refers to the qualities of a thing. However, "How does it sound like?" is not correct. You could use either "How does it sound?" or "What does it sound like?" (both are correct, in this context the meaning is the same, but they aren't generally interchangeable).

To see the difference, look at how you would use 'sound like' verses 'sound' not in a question: E.g., if someone has a foreign accent, you could say either "He sounds foreign" or "He sounds like a foreigner". In "X sounds Y", Y is some trait that you're attributing to X based on the quality of the sound. In "X sounds like Y", Y is some noun that your saying X sounds similar to. Thus, "what" is correct with "sounds like" because "What does X sound like?" will have the answer "X sounds like Y" where Y is some thing with a similar sound to X. "How" is correct with "sound" because "How does X sound?" will have the answer "X sounds Y" where Y is some property that X might have, based on the sound of X.

There's also another usage of "Sounds like", which is "X sounds like X is Y", for example "He sounds like he is a foreigner". This has the same meaning as "X sounds Y". But you still should ask "What does X sound like?" instead of "How does X sound like?" because the answer would be "X is Y" describing a state of being, not a quality of the sound.


In contexts other than this particular one, there are further differences in nuance between "X sounds Y" and "X sounds like Y".

When you say "X sounds Y", you are saying that it's plausible that X is in fact Y based on the sound. Returning to my previous example, "He sounds foreign" is implying that your best guess, based on the sound, is that he is in fact foreign. On the other hand, "X sounds like Y" usually (but not always) has the connotation that X is not actually Y, but only sounds similar to how Y sounds. If I say "He sounds like a foreigner" in the context of someone having an accent, most likely I would be complimenting his ability to mimic a foreign accent, not saying that he probably is in fact a foreigner. For this reason, don't use "X sounds like Y" if you're not sure whether or not X is in fact Y.

You should also note "How does X sound?" is most commonly used to ask for someone's opinion about a suggestion, for example, if you're planning a party, you could say "Let's start at 6:00, how does that sound?" or "How does it sound if we start at 6:00?" to ask people's opinion about 6:00 as a starting time.

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The other answers are good, but miss one thing that I think is very helpful for understanding this in general, especially because it applies to other senses as well.

In English, when sensory verbs ('sound', 'look', 'feel', 'taste', 'smell', and a small handful of others in very specific cases) are used by themselves to ask about something, they are used to ask about the properties of the object in question in a qualitative sense. Example responses include things like 'It sounds loud', 'It looks shiny', 'It feels rough', 'It tastes spicy', or 'It smells fruity'. Because it's asking in this case for an adverb describing the verb, you must use 'how' with these forms (or more correctly, 'how do/does').

However, adding 'like' to the verb changes it from a generic qualitative question to a comparative question. Instead of asking about the object in question in a generic sense, they ask for a point of comparison that is similar to the object (at least in the context of that sense). Example responses include things like 'It sounds like a whale.', 'It looks like steel.', 'It feels like sandpaper.', 'It tastes like a jalapeño.', or 'It smells like acetone.'. Because these are asking for a noun that is not a person, place, time, or choice among alternatives, they require the use of 'what'.

More generally, the forms with 'like' are what are known as 'phrasal verbs', and they are functionally different verbs altogether from the base forms (though they are often related to the base form in at least some generic sense). Other examples of phrasal verbs in English include 'looking forward to', 'stand by', and 'give in'. Many languages have phrasal verbs, and they're often one of the more difficult parts to learn because they tend to be heavily influenced by the way native speakers think (especially ones that utilize prepositions).

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The difference is primarily a matter of syntax. If you transform the question into a statement, it becomes

X speech sounds like Y.

Here, like is a preposition and Y is the object of the preposition. Y can be a noun phrase (... sounds like a mouse's squeak), a clause (... sounds like chalk squeaking on a blackboard), or an entire sentence (... sounds like it is being played on a record player at the wrong speed).

In the question, we don't know what Y is, so we replace it with an interrogative pro-form. There are only a few of these in English; which one we use depends on what we know about Y's part of speech or other categories:

  • who if Y is a person
  • where if Y is a place
  • when if Y is a time
  • which if Y is a choice of two or more alternatives
  • why if Y is an adverbial clause expressing a reason, cause, or purpose
  • how if Y is an adverb or adverbial clause expressing manner, or an adjective
  • what if Y is a noun other than a person, place, or time, or some other part of speech not covered above

Because of the semantics of the verb sound, we know Y is not a place or time. In English, a preposition cannot have an adverb or adjective as an object. Therefore, our only choices are who, which, or what. Any of these could be correct depending on the context.

To see why how is not correct, consider some adverbs or adjectives and plug them in for Y:

*X speech sounds like loudly. (incorrect)

*X speech sounds like very fast. (incorrect)

*X speech sounds like squeaky. (incorrect)

Although these could refer to qualities of the speech, they can't be used as an object of a preposition. It would be fine to say

X speech sounds squeaky.

in which case how is correct, not what:

How does X speech sound?

*What does X speech sound? (incorrect)

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