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Formally, in my English education, I have learned to ask for the outward appearance of something using the expression:

"What does it look like?"

Since my mother tongue is German and we say "Wie sieht es aus?", I frequently catch myself saying:

"How does it look?"

which would be the direct translation from German.

Since I think the translation does not sound wrong (I am certainly biased though) I would like to ask you if this is correct English in at least some cases or just a mistake of mine?

Thanks!

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It's a good idea to wait a day or two before accepting an answer, to see whether more appropriate answers come in. –  Bradd Szonye Jun 12 '13 at 20:53
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Out of curiosity, does the German version have a similar pair to English, and are there similar nuances of distinction like those given in the answers? –  Mitch Jun 13 '13 at 1:37
    
Frequently heard from non-native speakers: "How does it look like?" –  Daan Jun 13 '13 at 8:33
    
@Mitch No, there is no such pair in German. And also, depending on the context, 'Wie sieht ... aus' can ask for both an opinion or a description. –  alexlo Jun 13 '13 at 12:52

3 Answers 3

up vote 66 down vote accepted

In English, “How does it look?” generally asks for a value judgment, whereas “What does it look like?” asks for a physical description.

How does this dress look?
It suits you well.

How does this dog look?
It looks healthy.

versus:

What does this dress look like?
It has a high waist and a short skirt.

What does this dog look like?
It's black with a white muzzle and socks.

The questions have more overlap when discussing more abstract subjects:

How does your week look?
I'm very busy.

What does your week look like?
I'm free on Tuesday and Thursday.

In this case, the answers would still be reasonable with the questions reversed.

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Neat summary of the distinction, which I suspect OP was unaware of. I'd have thought German would have some equivalent pair of phrasings, but he seems to be simply asking how we request a description. –  FumbleFingers Jun 13 '13 at 0:41
    
(There is an equivalent in German, but it uses different verbs instead of the same verb.) –  mafutrct Jun 13 '13 at 15:21

Both are perfectly acceptable.

I would note that "How does it look?" applies more to things or properties of things which are abstract, using the metaphorical sense of the verb look e.g. "How does your schedule look tonight?" sounds slightly better that "What does your schedule look like tonight?". "What does it look like?" applies more to physical objects or physical properties of objects, e.g. "What does an elephant look like?" is fine, but "How does an elephant look?" seems strange. However, both can apply in either situation, and this difference is somewhat subtle. You may also find that this distinction varies by dialect, so others might disagree.

"How does it look?" also has the possibility of introducing ambiguity that the other construction does not. For example, one correct response to "How does an elephant look?" would be "With its eyes."

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Haha, I like the elephant explanation! –  alexlo Jun 12 '13 at 20:25
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In many contexts, “How does it look?” can invite value judgment or criticism, whereas “What does it look like?” aims more toward a general description. For example, “How does this painting look?” “It looks good.” – versus – “What does this painting look like?” “It looks like a cow.” –  Bradd Szonye Jun 12 '13 at 20:25
    
@BraddSzonye yes, that's kind of what I was trying to say. "How does it look?" is a more abstract question than "What does it look like?" –  p.s.w.g Jun 12 '13 at 20:28
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I don't think the difference is between abstract and physical objects however, as you can ask either question of most physical things: How does this dress look? It's more about quality versus appearance. –  Bradd Szonye Jun 12 '13 at 20:31
    
@BraddSzonye Yes, exactly. I mean that "How does it look?" applies more to abstract objects or to abstract properties of objects (overall appearance vs. physical description). I've updated my answer to clarify. –  p.s.w.g Jun 13 '13 at 0:49

"How does it look?" is a request for a critique of the appearance of something.

Your girlfriend (or boyfriend) puts makeup on and asks, "How does it look?"

The answer is always, "Beautiful!"

"What does it look like?" is a request for a description of something.

Your girlfriend (or boyfriend) asks, "I hear your old girlfriend (or boyfriend) is wearing a new outfit to the party tonight and you've already seen it. What does it look like?"

The answer is always, "It's black and green and too hideous to even be a Halloween costume!"

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