Sometimes I feel uncomfortable to say "How do you spell xxx ?". It sounds like asking his or her own way of spelling a word implicating that I am not necessarily expecting the correct answer. Is "How do you ... ?" a polite question to ask the right way to do things ?

closed as general reference by MetaEd, Kristina Lopez, choster, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, tchrist Jun 15 '13 at 14:29

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Yes. It indicates that you believe the person will give the correct answer and is the right person to ask. – Andrew Leach Jun 11 '13 at 8:20
  • @AndrewLeach Why is that ? It seems more natural to me to say "How should I spell ...?". – Aki Jun 11 '13 at 8:29
  • Please add to your question if you have additional information; don't converse in comments. – Andrew Leach Jun 11 '13 at 8:32
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    You really do not mean to ask "How do I do something?" -- you want to ask "How does anyone do something?" (the correct way, that is.) In this case, the use of the pronoun you is correct, in a different sense -- exactly what you wanted. See my answer. HTH. – Kris Jun 12 '13 at 5:30

The pronoun does not necessarily refer to the second person alone or (contextually, the first person here); you has another meaning!

2. Also one, refers to an unspecified person or people in general you can't tell the boys from the girls (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/you)

Usage: You is also used to imply 'a person in general,' 'one,' ...

You should be already familiar with this usage, though not aware of it. a tiny animal you can't even see. (ibid.)


I think that "How do you do X..." is almost universally understood as a less formal version of "How does one do X..." so I think your question is fine.


Responding to the broader question you put, it wouldn't be polite to ask "How do you spell xxx?" before a polite introduction. Generally, this would include a greeting and some small talk. The switch to the question can be smoothed by a hedge such as "Can I ask you a question - ...".

Some might say that "May I ask you, ..." is preferable here, but that would sound stuffy in casual conversation. And while "How does one spell xxx ?" is probably logically preferable for the reason you suggest, it sounds ridiculously formal. "How do you spell xxx ?" is preferable by far - the 'you' is not stressed, in fact, hardly pronounced ("How d'yə spell xxx?" - cf "How d'yə do?") - to show that the 'you' in this case means 'people in general'.


"How does one spell..." is infinitely better than "how do I..." or "how do you..." because spelling is never open to interpretation!

If that is too formal, one could ask, "What is the correct spelling of..."

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    But spelling does differ between, e.g., British & American practice (you'll note I've spelt "practice" in the British way). There are also a few words which have at least two accepted spellings within a single region. So I might ask "How do you spell ..." if I were talking to an American and were interested in trans-Atlantic spelling differences. – TrevorD Jun 11 '13 at 13:26
  • Infinitely better? Someone had better tell the 86,800,000 Google hitters who use "how do you spell" they'd better get into step with the 147,000 who use "how does one spell". (I admit, I'm using statistical licence here - but the figures do seem to spell out the true situation.) – Edwin Ashworth Jun 11 '13 at 18:44
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    One is just an alternative to the special use of you -- please see my answer. Some editors do not approve of the use of one, for understandable reasons. Its possessive and other inflexions can quickly get awkward making the sentence unreadable. ExSum: One is not necessarily 'preferable' over you. – Kris Jun 12 '13 at 5:26

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