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This question is inspired by comments on a question on stackoverflow. The original poster wrote:

How to correct this error?

And comments say that it's an incorrect question. Better is

How do I correct this error?

I am not a native English speaker, so the fact that both versions sound natural to me is quite irrelevant. But I would like to ask anyway whether the first version is really bad. I have seen a lot of questions starting with How to, so if you say that the first version is incorrect, could you please summarize when it is OK to use How to and when it is preferable to say How do I.

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"How to correct this error" is a phrase that might do well as a title. "How do I correct this error" is a complete sentence. – MετάEd Feb 1 '12 at 16:16
up vote 9 down vote accepted

In the original context, how to correct this error was intended as a question, but this is not a standard way to ask a question. It isn't a sentence, nor is it an interrogative, and it shouldn't have a question mark at the end of it. It's a content clause, or what is misleadingly called a "noun clause." Content clauses of this type would typically be used in contexts like:

  • I wonder how to correct this error.
  • There's no information on how to correct this error.
  • How to correct this error will be the focus of my talk.

Content clauses like this are also often used by themselves as headings and occasionally by people musing to themselves (e.g., "hmmm... how to solve this...").

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They can just as often be wrapped with a question: "Can you show me how to correct this error?" – TylerH Jan 21 at 18:48
Indeed, they can. – Brett Reynolds Jan 22 at 20:29

"How to correct this error?" is missing a subject and a (finite) verb. So any of the following, or many variants, would look more complete as questions:

  • How do I correct this error?
  • How would you correct this error?
  • How might one correct this error?
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The last one ("How might one") sounds awfully posh. – Flexo Feb 1 '12 at 21:57

How to...? is not a grammatical sentence, but is well-understood in Q&A contexts. How do I...? is a grammatical sentence.

While both contain what look like verbs, the first construction is using an infinitive form ("to correct", in your example), which can't stand as the main verb in a sentence. (For one thing, it has no subject.)

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In ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language’, David Crystal calls sentences like the 'How to . . .' one ‘minor sentences’. He describes them as using ‘abnormal patterns which cannot be clearly analysed into a sequence of clause elements, as can major sentences’. – Barrie England Feb 1 '12 at 16:25
And he's dead right. David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedias should be in every Anglophone classroom in the world, in my opinion. They're the best one-source books available. Especially in paperback. – John Lawler Feb 1 '12 at 17:24
Thanks for the recommendation; I hadn't heard of that source before. – Monica Cellio Feb 1 '12 at 18:47
"For one thing, it has no subject." well that's kind of not accidental, however. "How would someone, anyone do X? It doesn't matter who, please don't tailor your answer with anybody specific in mind." I can understand if omitting the subject entirely is not the correct way to make the subject as generic as possible but... :) – badp Apr 4 '12 at 23:16
@badp, are you looking for "how does someone do X?" (as a replacement for "how do I...?")? – Monica Cellio Apr 5 '12 at 15:33

How to . . .? is fine in many contexts in which it is likely to occur. It will frequently be found as a heading. However, if you are asking the question yourself, How do I . . .? would be more usual, and is to be preferred if you think your readers won't like the alternative.

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How do I always refers to yourself as the asker, or another asker if quoted or referenced e.g.

She asked "How do I do this?"

How to however does not make this distinction and can be used more flexibility.

For example:

I said how to fix it?

I said how do I fix it?

These both mean different things.

Otherwise you can use the two phrases for the same purpose, just keep in mind they require different wording and punctuation around them depending on the context and subject.

Of note, starting a sentence with "How to" is rarely a good idea, and as pointed out elsewhere is likely to be grammatically incorrect.

If you're unsure of which to use, you would be better off rephrasing to use something more appropriate such as How does she or How would I

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