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As the title says, I'm asking because you can split the StackOverflow questions to three groups according to their openings, for example:

  1. "How do I serialize an object...",
  2. "How do you serialize an object...",
  3. "How to serialize an object...",

And asking questions quite often myself, I'm curious which is the proper way.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There are many ways to ask that question; some are more formal than others, some are grammatically wanting, and some are downright confusing. StackOverflow has plenty of ungrammatical English, so don't assume it is a paragon for English usage.

How do I serialize an object ...?

This is another way of asking "How can I ...?" except it literally asks the reader to guess how the writer does a serialization. It is informal and well understood, however.

How do you serialize an object ...?

This is also an informal phrasing, but its literal inquiry is not a departure: the OP may want to know how you do a thing, and that is what is being asked.

How to serialize an object ...?

The most charitable view of this phrasing is that it is a rhetorical phrasing using ellipsis. It will likely be understood, but may sound awkward unless finished deftly or followed with capable writing.

Other variants include:

How can I ...?

How does one ...?

What is the best way to ...?

Which approach is better: A or B?

And so on. There is no single correct way to ask a question.

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@Robusto: It may be largely down to the tireless efforts of @RegDwight, but I notice a certain tendency for EL&U titles to adopt 'standardised' formats. For example, a lot start with SomeWord vs SomeOtherWord. I can easily imagine a similar approach at StackOverflow leading to How to... because it's easily comprehensible and avoids both the 'personalised' interpretations you point out (which they probably don't really want there). And, as you imply, StackOverflow focusses on technical issues, not grammar. –  FumbleFingers May 24 '11 at 12:52
    
...apropos which I've just nipped over there myself and done a search for the single word how. The massive preponderance of results for How to... is enough to convince me there is a tendency to standardise on that format. I can't believe all those posters are simply non-native speakers unaware of normal usage in other contexts. –  FumbleFingers May 24 '11 at 12:58
    
"How to" is historically common (see tldp.org where documents are classified into guides, faqs and HOWTOs - subject-specific help, shorter than guides, longer and more detailed than faqs). But I think OP wanted to know about differences and will not actually settle on one single phrase. –  Unreason May 24 '11 at 14:38
    
@FumbleFingers: I'm pretty sure that any standardization you are detecting in titles is an accident of community rather than a deliberate decision by anyone. Apart from anything else, it's fairly uncommon to restructure (rather than tweak) the title of a question unless it's completely hopeless. –  user1579 May 24 '11 at 16:35
    
Does a question have to be a literal question? I don't see anything wrong with 'How to serialize an object'. It's less awkward than 'How to serialize an object...?' and do we really need redundancy as in 'What is the best way to...?' The best way should be in the top answer anyway. –  z7sg Ѫ May 24 '11 at 17:15

There are many differences between the phrases, but in the context of forum question they all work and are correct.


The best ones are

"How to serialize an object.."

and variants

"How does one serialize an object.."
"How should we serialize an object.."

because they all try to be objective and you will find these in technical papers (with the to form being the most neutral). They all ask for an ideal solution and are not ambiguous.

How do you serialize an object..

in the context of the forum question means the same and is perfectly understood and correct. In the context of forum question it is obvious that you are not directing the question to anyone in particular, but to all. However, if exactly the same phrase appears later in the comments then it will almost certainly be perceived as directed to a particular individual.

So, that is the slight difference - if you take out the context, the neutral forms will keep their meaning while the "I" and "You" forms depend on the context and can be taken literally.

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I don't think I've ever heard the phrasing "How to serialize an object?" in spoken English. The phrase "how to serialize an object" is a valid phrase in some contexts, but it's not a valid question all by itself. –  Tanner Swett Sep 19 at 23:05

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