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Is it correct to ask "how do you say 'tower' in Spanish?" or should we actually ask "what's the Spanish word for 'tower'?" Some people say that if I ask "how do you say..." the answer would be softly, loudly etc., as if how was functioning as an adverb of manner and that was its only function. So, the correct question would be "what's the Spanish word for..."

What do you think? is there any grammar rule that could help me understand the difference between these two questions?

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    Actually, the difference in how you ask is that if you ask for just the word, that's what you'll get. But if you ask how do you say X, you might get the word or a phrase or idiom that is "how" the natives would say x. Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 16:13
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    But you're picking up grains of sand one by one if you ask word by word. You'll never get to the beach that way. Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 16:15
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    "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" You can misinterpret anything. The normal way to say it is "How do you say X?"
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 16:30
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    To @Robusto's point, yes, some joker might take you literally when you ask "how do you say...", but in English, "how do you say..." is a well-understood idiom and most people will perfectly understand what you're asking. Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 16:32
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    "Doctor, it hurts when I press my belly. It also hurts when I press my chest." // "I see. It appears your finger is broken." Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 16:33

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As Kristina says, what's the word for... asks for a specific word, while how do you say... could be a word or a phrase.

Both ways are perfectly fine and idiomatic. A pedant myself, the argument "how asks for an adverb of manner" sounds like a joke to me, wordplay, not something one would say in all seriousness. You can express a "manner" in more ways than just by a single adverb; a sequence of sounds (like a phrase) is a manner or way to express a thought, a way of saying something.

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    Not to be pedantic, but don't you mean "To a pedant like myself, the argument ... sounds like a joke?"
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 16:30
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    @Robusto: I thought about it, but decided it had to be an absolute construction, of the type her mother dead, she fled the country. Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 16:31
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    "Her mother dead, she ..." is fine. "A pedant myself, the argument ... sounds" is a dangling participial clause.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 16:34
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    But the general, and important, point is that lots of things we say are formally ambiguous, but rather few of them are ambiguous in practice, mostly because pragmatic principles (such as Gricean implicatures) take care of it for us.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 20:06
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    @ColinFine: I didn't change the construction. Also, any apprentice pedant would know that the article in question is Type 2.c.(ii).k. It's a rookie mistake, but I will let it go with a warning this time.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 22:06

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