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What does it smell like?

How does it smell?

I think both of them are correct ways of asking what something smells like. But I feel that there is some difference between them. Can you please point that out?

  • Crucially, only the latter works in a "my dog's got no nose..." joke. – Ergwun Mar 28 '15 at 3:04
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The first question asks for a comparison:

What does it smell like?

Possible answers:

It smells like gingerbread.
It smells like fruity wine.
It smells like a cesspool.

The second question asks for a word describing the quality or goodness of the aroma:

How does it smell?

Possible answers:

It smells great!
It smells terrible.
It smells like a cesspool.

Okay, why did I use that last one for both questions? Because everyone knows a cesspool smells awful, so it works for the second question. It's essentially the equivalent of:

It smells awful – like a cesspool.

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  • What if I take the question from the first set and the answer from the second? Like, What does it smell like? It smells bad. – Kaptan Singh Mar 27 '15 at 19:28
  • @KaptanSingh That would be an acceptable, if vague, answer and the person asking you might repeat the question with emphasis... on how it smells bad. "Bad" is really generic and subjective. Some people think blue cheese smell "bad" but people who appreciate them like the smell. – Catija Mar 27 '15 at 19:39
  • @KaptanSingh - That answer wouldn't be "wrong" – but, then again, it simply wouldn't answer the question as precisely as it could. – J.R. Mar 27 '15 at 20:32
  • You certainly could switch answers from group 1 to group 2. Though I suppose this doesn't prove much, as people often "answer" a question with a statement that does not really directly answer the question. Example: "How long have you known Sally?" A direct answer would be a period of time, like "Five years". But if someone said, "We met in college", few would say that is non-responsive. This is especially true if the question has a flawed premise. "How long have you known Sally?" "I don't know anyone named Sally." – Jay Mar 27 '15 at 21:03
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    Anyway, I think I got off track. A question like, "What does it smell like?" MIGHT be asking for a literal response: "It smells like a grapefruit", etc. But often the question is very general, and, "Oh, it smells very pretty" would be a perfectly acceptable answer. – Jay Mar 27 '15 at 21:05

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