Is How come a phrase? What does it mean? Is it formal or informal? British or American?
Can I use it in anywhere?


5 Answers 5


How come is a fixed phrase with fixed uses of its own.

  1. It means, as you have divined, why, and may be used, like why, either as the head of a noun phrase, or as a bare interrogative, or as an interrogative head; but as an interrogative head it does not take ‘DO-support’—that is, it is followed by an ordinary clause in indicative form:

    And that's why I went to the party. ... And that's how come I went to the party.
    Why? .... How come?
    Why did you go to the party? ... How come you went to the party?

  2. It is never inflected: we never say How came or How has come or How comes or anything of the sort.

How come is not used in formal writing or speech; it is distinctly casual.

  • Can't it be inflected: "How did you come to go to the party?" Commented Mar 2, 2013 at 18:32
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    @PeterShor That, and "How I came" and "How does it come?" and "How it comes to pass" and "That is how it came about" are no doubt where the phrase originates; but they aren't How come, which takes neither an infinitive nor "that" but a full, unsubordinated indicative clause. Commented Mar 2, 2013 at 19:58

It means

I don't understand how that can be. Please be good enough to provide an explanation.

It is colloquial, and in some circumstances it might sound rude. As a foreign learner, you should avoid it yourself until you are confident about its use, but it's important for you to understand it.

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    Thank you for your answer. So that you have explained, It is informal and I must be careful for using it!! Is it true? Can we say that It means briefly 'why'?
    – LeoHzs
    Commented Mar 2, 2013 at 10:56
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    @hzs_4279 i think,yes,you can use how come instead of why.
    – omid
    Commented Mar 2, 2013 at 11:26
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    @hzs_4279. I'd say it was a little more than why? and would be used in different circumstances. No space here to give a complete lesson on it, though. Commented Mar 2, 2013 at 12:06
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    I think the sense of rudeness stems from children asking "How come?" to people of authority after having been denied a request. It suggests a lack of respect for an authoritative decision; not that I necessarily agree with that perspective. Commented Mar 2, 2013 at 14:50

"How come" is actually often seen as a more polite, less confrontational way of asking "why?" in standard American English. I encourage my adult ESL students to use it instead of WHY in most situations. Often when a person is asked WHY, they feel somewhat defensive, as if the person asking is challenging the action. In my experience, when a person is asked HOW COME instead of WHY it sounds more like the asker is simply, genuinely asking for help understanding the other person's reasoning rather than challenging it. That leads to a less defensive response and better communication overall. I believe students learning English should be taught HOW COME early in the language learning process, at the same time they are taught the basic question words WHO WHAT WHEN WHERE WHY and encouraged to use HOW COME in conversation rather than why. I'm surprised by the above comments that HOW COME has a stronger, more complex or rude meaning than WHY and should be avoided by inexperienced speakers. I'm going to think about that and see if I can come up with any evidence that this feeling is common. It is very different than my view of the phrase.


"How come" in questions is short for "How does/did/has it come + (that) clause. It is colloquial style. - How come your English is so good?


I'm not an expert on word history, but I do know that I heard this phrase more often in the South Eastern United States where I grew up more than I hear it in the South West where I have lived for 15 years. It may be best to avoid it outside the South East unless you hear other people using it.

Many have stately that it can be replaced with "why". In many cases, I would agree. However, it needs to have more words with it sometimes.

For example:

How come my knees pop when I stand up? Why do my knees pop when I stand up?

Or the verb may need to move as in this example.

How come my check engine light is on in my car? Why is my check engine light on in my car?

I would venture to say that the phrase means more than just "why". I think it may have been shortened from a phrase such as "how did this come to pass". Just a guess though based on my experience using this phrase in the South Eastern United States. Feel free to disagree.

  • 'the phrase means more than just "why".' Indeed. In contrast to "why", which can mean "for what reason", "how come" means more specifically "from what cause".
    – Rosie F
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 9:53

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