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Some of my colleagues have argued that when a statement/question uses the work "how", the reader expects to get a list of solutions.


  • "How could world hunger be solved?"
  • "How can a search engine be implemented using Python?"

Is this expectation correct? Does using "how" implicitly indicate that the answer should be all possible solutions/answers?

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It is often used rhetorically, too: For example, I might answer your first question with "How do I know?". Or, as I ask my sons all the time, "How can you walk past a full garbage can and not notice that it needs to be taken out?" I promise you that I am not expecting a logical answer to that question. – JeffSahol Jun 19 '12 at 12:55
I'd say "how can" vs "how does one..." implies this is an open question with more than one correct answer, but still giving a single example for the answer should be perfectly sufficient. – SF. Jun 19 '12 at 13:05
up vote 5 down vote accepted

No, it doesn't. In the absence of any specific request, such a question invites suggestions which may or may not be comprehensive.

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Of course the "method" or "way to do something" is one answer to a "How" question. But it isn't the only one.

"How" also asks about manner.

"How come..." is used to ask about the reason. "How is..." asks about condition. "How about..." is used to suggest or ask for your opinion.

And it's very common for "How" to ask about degree when you combine it with other words.

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Starting a question with "How" does not restrict the amount of solutions, but it does not implicitly ask for providing a list of possibilities. Such a question requires at the very least one answer.

If I do expect a list of possible solution I would ask something along the following two examples which indicate that I like to have the choice between two or more solutions, likely including a discussion about the solutions.

What are the conceivable strategies to reduce hunger crisis?

What are the practical implementations in Python to develop a search engine?

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If I were asked either of these questions in a conversation, I would expect a discussion about a list of possible solutions with information of pros and cons of each.

If somebody were to ask me the second question on stackoverflow, I would only provide them with one answer (if I knew any!) unless they explicitly asked for a comparison of options

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