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How...?

What...like?

According to English Grammar Today (on Cambridge Dictionaries Online),

How …? has 3 different meanings:
1)To ask about someone’s general health or 2) about the condition or state of something, or 3) how people experience something.

What is … like?, on the other hand, has only one: to ask for a description of someone or something (e.g. their appearance, their character, their behaviour.)

What makes this matter complex (at least for me) is that a description can be how we experience something, not only what is the physical/objective description. That's why in English grammars and online websites, many answers for both types of questions start with 'It is great...' or 'It is nice...' or 'It is cool...' , or 'It's wonderful...' etc. Of course, the rest of the content of the answer can vary.

My question is:

How was the film (yesterday)?

What was the film like?

If I just wanted to know if the film was either nice or not nice, was either good or not good, giving freedom for the other person to choose the content of her answer, I mean, how did she experience the film or what is the story about, the film genre, the actors etc (description), am I free to choose any of this questions for my enquiry?

  • IMHO, no. When you ask "what was the film like?", you want a comparison rather than a general impression. You can get a reply "it was like nothing I've seen before!", which doesn't really tell you anything certain, does it? It's an answer, but not what you might have expected. – Victor Bazarov Sep 13 '15 at 20:36
  • ...OTOH, if you ask "How was the film?", the person has to give an adjective or an adverb as the answer, to actually characterize the film without comparing it to anything. – Victor Bazarov Sep 13 '15 at 20:38
  • hmmm, but look: ´Essential Grammar in Use (elementary)' by Raymond Murphy - Unit 46.5 3. Question: Your friend has just come back from the cinema. Ask about the film. Answer: What was the film like? – viery365 Sep 13 '15 at 20:45
  • I am sure there is plenty of books out there with which my P.O.V. differs. So? – Victor Bazarov Sep 13 '15 at 20:46
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    @VictorBazarov It looks like it ought to be asking for a comparison, but it isn't. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 14 '15 at 1:13
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What CDO is giving you is typical uses, not restrictive definitions. What precisely (or vaguely) is meant by these utterances is more dependent on the discourse situation than on any specific meaning either of them expresses.

For instance, one of my colleagues may ask me tomorrow "What was the concert like?" I know that she doesn't know anything about the music of Koji Kondo and that what she's really trying to convey is that she remembers my mentioning last week, with some bemusement, that I was taking my son to a performance of music from the Zelda games and she hopes it wasn't too tedious for me. I will reassure her that "We had a really good time".

On the other hand, my son's friends are mostly musicians, and if one of them asks him "How was the concert?" he will probably answer something like "The first trumpet seemed to have chops problems, he had a lot of high entrances and was usually a quarter-tone flat. But the arrangements were very cool, a lot of Debussy in it, and the video synch-up was kick-ass."

Your own phrase, "giving freedom for the other person to choose the content of her answer", expresses the situation admirably. Neither I nor my son pay any attention to how the questions are worded: he and I, and our interlocutors, address our audiences and our social situations.

  • Thank you very much! Your answer is just what I was looking for. – viery365 Sep 14 '15 at 7:13
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In my opinion, "How was the film?" would be probably met with a reply about the state of the actual place where you watched it, such as if there were any crying babies or there was a guy sneezing throughout the movie or if it was really smelly.

"What was the film like?" would be asking the person about the ACTUAL film and not the surroundings. That is: were the scenes good, was it interesting, or just generally what happened in the movie.

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