Translations 9

How and why: the two most confusing of question words

An expanded text from Typical Errors in English

The main problem with these two words is all about direct translation from Polish to English, so let's have a look at the various examples in detail.


HOW is a word that virtually all English students have problems with, often using this instead of WHAT when it comes to asking for meanings in the subject of English.


In the UK, it is also seen as a word in stereotypical use by learners with examples such as I don’t remember how it’s called and How to say that someone falls down because of ice on the road. Comedians often use ‘how’ phrases when they are mimicking non-English speakers, particularly from Europe.


In virtually all cases, when asking about the meaning of something, the word what is usually needed instead of how: I don’t remember what it is called. What do you say (or what should you say) when someone falls down because of the ice? What is pierogi in English? 

How you say pierogi in English?/How is pierogi in English?/How is it in English?/How do you say pierogi in English?
In the Polish language (and in other languages too), the question word how (jak) is often used when wanting to know something. In English, if you want to know something, the question word to use is what. So if you want to know a Polish word in English, you should ask ‘What is pierogi in English?’


How is used in many ways for questions:


 •    It can be used to ask about the ability, method, or the way in which something happens, is expressed, or is done: How do you play cricket? How do you manage with six children? How do you make bigos? How is pierogi made?


 •    It is also used to express quantity: How many people live in China? How old are you? How much money have you got?


 •    It can also be used when asking someone whether something is or was successful or enjoyable: How was your trip? How are you getting on in your new job? How is my pronunciation? 

 •    It is used when someone asks about the state or health of a person/situation, or to find out someone’s news: How are you today? How’s the weather in London? I wonder how she got on with her new boyfriend yesterday? How is it in Madrid?


 •    There are also a number of expressions that use how: How should I say this? (What is the best way to express what I am going to say next?); How about a cup of tea? (I think a cup of tea is a good idea. What can also be used for a similar meaning); How strange! (to show surprise); How could you? (to disapprove); How about you? (What do you think?)


I don't know how it looks like.

A very common problem, it's officially in my top ten of errors, and surprisingly it gets little mention in the book, so here it is.


It should be I don't know what it looks like.


The use of the question words what and how when asking about something's appearance does give students of English problems, so we should say I don't know how it looks, or I don't know what it looks like



So... HOW do you express the question 'how do you say pierogi in English'?

As regards How do you say pierogi in English, many teachers, scholars, and even English textbooks have differing opinions. 


Strictly speaking, the question appears to ask about the ability or method to say the word rather than its meaning. If I took this as a serious question, then I might respond by saying, It’s great in English, and particularly good in French, Mandarin Chinese and Punjabi. You should try it! or I say it with an English accent or I use my mouth. 


Now we can put a question together to ask about English with the ‘how’ form if, for example, the student sees a word that they cannot pronounce like thistle, and so asks the teacher how they can say thistle: Excuse me, this word T-H-I-S-T-L-E. How do you say this word? 


It could be argued that the use of how in this case is an example of saying how a word in English is expressed after it has been translated from Polish: How do you say this word [after it has been translated from Polish?] Many natives do often use the phrase ‘now, how should I say this’ or ‘how should I put this’, but they are thinking at that moment about the best way of expressing the next point that they are about to make, not asking about the meaning of something. The question is really asking the listener to tell the person what the word pierogi is in English.


One could also say that How do you say pierogi in English is certainly no easier to say than What is pierogi in English.

Now while there are many teachers who believe that How do you say pierogi in English is strictly speaking incorrect, for many language schools, teachers, and even in a handful of textbooks, it is considered acceptable because of the argument that it is treated as a question about expression. It is used by many speakers, is widely understood, and would generally not be questioned in an English lesson. You can call it up on Google and there would be plenty of examples. It can also be argued that it is simply a case of a development in the language. So on this basis and the evidence discussed above that does suggest otherwise, perhaps it could be argued that it should not be classed as a typical error in English.


But if we were to follow the rules of English precisely, then if you are asking about the meanings of words – and individual words are nouns – you should be asking such questions with what.


Finally, to answer the question. What is pierogi in English? Simple – it is pierogi. Pierogi is in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is often used as an irregular noun: we can say one pierogi or two pierogi. Pierogi doesn’t take long to prepare. I would like a plate of pierogi. How many pierogi would you like to eat? However, some English variants express more than one pierogi as pierogies. To further confuse the issue, pierogi in Polish is already plural, the singular form being pieróg


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