Which of the following is more suitable as a title for a picture with an arrow toward a part of the body's anatomy?

  1. How is this called?
  2. What is this called?

I need this for a picture of a part of the body, that appears without information about this part. So, I need to ask what it is called in anatomical terminology.


In American English, it's definitely "What is this called?".

"How is this called" is a common mistake with second language learners. If this phrasing is used, it will signal to any native speakers viewing the diagram that it was created by a learner.

In the Google nGram data, "How is this called" doesn't even appear.

  • 2
    @Harry Spanish distinguishes between "what" and "how", but in Spanish, you say "¿Cómo se llama?" (literally "How is it called?") instead of "¿Cuál se llama?" (literally "Which is it called?"--Spanish often uses "cuál", literally "which", where an English speaker may expect "qué", literally "what"). – Tanner Swett May 16 '15 at 5:03
  • 5
    @HarryJohnston It's more complicated than that. Many languages distinguish them, but in different ways than English does. – snailplane May 16 '15 at 10:58
  • 4
    I think this answer applies to all English, not just American. – David Richerby May 16 '15 at 13:03
  • 1
    And in French, "comment t'appelles-tu?" (how do you call yourself) but "qui est ton nom?" (what is your name). Subtly different notion of what "calling" is, that means you ask how it's done, not what is done. German "wie heißt du?" vs .either "wie ist dein Name?" or "was ist dein Name?". So "how are you called?" is a reasonable guess at the English, you just have to learn that it's not right. – Steve Jessop May 16 '15 at 15:04
  • 1
    @Steve "Qui es tu?" (who are you) or "Quel est ton nom?" (what is your name) in French. "Qui est ton nom?" would be "Who (a person) is your name?". – ptyx May 16 '15 at 21:06

Q. "What is this dog called?"

A. "Fido"

Q. "How is this dog called?"

A. "Using a dog whistle."

  • 7
    "My dog's got no nose". "How does he smell?" "Terrible". "What does he smell?" "Nothing, he's got no nose" – Steve Jessop May 16 '15 at 14:50

WHAT is about the OBJECT
HOW is about the METHOD
WHY is about the REASON
WHO is about the PERSON(s)
WHEN is about TIME

what is this* car [called] - OBJECT.name.car; tool transport brand
how is this* car [called] - METHOD.name.car; written, spoken, pronounced

what is this called [object.named] item.name
how is this called [method.named] item.naming method — written, spoken, pronounced


What is going on: OBJECT.event
How is [it*] going on: OBJECT.event.method

What did happen? OBJECT.event (short)
How did [it*] happen? OBJECT.event.method (long)
→ why, where, who, when

it* referring to WHAT, WHO, WHEN, WHERE

"How did Paris happen" sounds strange, but one could reply, "a long time ago, there was this tribe…."

This is all IMHO as a non-native speaker.


OP's version #1 (using how instead of what is [something] called?) is a typical non-native speaker error. If you compare Google's results for how what called site-specific to ELL and again for site-specific to ELU, you'll see the error often occurs in actual question titles from non-native speakers.

Also, probably a lot of incorrect versions have been subsequently edited by ELU users. I must admit I feel I ought to go through all the "unnatural phrasing" question titles on ELL and correct them (but maybe if I wait, someone else will deal with it to help obtain their "Copy Editor" badge :).


Is there a suggestion that you can not use 'how' or 'what', you understand either or both, and it isn't because one is wrong and the other is right. As a child growing up in Glasgow I knew that if there was something I couldn't understand I'd question the other by using 'how'. I wasn't just asking for an explanation, no I was challenging the other speakers, but as an adult I rarely use 'how' as a means of defence but it is definitely heavier than 'what'.

  • Could you rephrase your first sentence? I don't think I understand what you're getting at. – Don B. Apr 6 '19 at 20:45

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