Is it really wrong to say "How do we call something in English?" instead of "What do we call something in English?"? The former's not unusual in Philippine English at all (probably it's because of the influence of Spanish, which was the national language for almost 400 years). Indeed, it's quite interesting that in many European languages, they tend to say "how". Anyone who can explain this? Thanks a lot.

  • 1
    Italians often make this mistake themselves from the fixed expression: "come si dice?" = How (do) you say? The simplest request for an English word I find is the following: What's gatto in English? (cat).
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 6, 2014 at 21:45
  • French is similar: "Comment dit-on...?" Literally, "How does one say...?". Feb 6, 2014 at 23:21
  • 21
    What is this animal called in English? A dog. How is this animal called in English? Come here, dog.
    – MetaEd
    Feb 7, 2014 at 0:32
  • the Russians tend to say how because it's a word-for-word translation from Russian then. I can see why others make the same mistake.
    – Yukatan
    Feb 9, 2014 at 16:24
  • Spanish as well: ¿Cómo se dice...?
    – qbantek
    Apr 2, 2014 at 12:51

3 Answers 3


This question on Pearson's English Language Teaching site pretty much answers your question.

To summarize:

In the sentence "What is this called in English?" the speaker is looking for the name of something to be substituted for the pronoun what. The speaker needs a noun or noun construction to identify the thing that the word what refers to.

In contrast, "How is it called in English?" does not make sense. How asks for information about the manner of doing something, or the degree or quantity of something.

The article goes on to conclude:

  • "How do you say that?" asks for a word, a phrase, a sentence or a paraphrase. It is quite comprehensive.
  • "What do you call that?" asks for a noun or noun construction. It's very specific.
  • "How do you call that?" is incorrect.
  • 1
    You would have to call the help center to issue your complaint. - How do you call that? - by phone, of course.
    – Theraot
    Feb 7, 2014 at 3:30
  • @Theraot Read the link; you'll see that form addressed. (It's not that long an article, honest.)
    – Gnawme
    Feb 7, 2014 at 5:47
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    Kind of, yet saying that it "is incorrect" is - let's say - hard to swallow. What the article says is that the word "how" asks for the manner of doing something and that's not the intention people have when they ask "How is this called in English?". So asking that in particular doesn't make sense. Still in general the combination of "how" and "call" is not incorrect, it just means something else, so it is a matter of finding the right context to show that "How do you call that" is not incorrect - it asks for instructions, mediums or means to call that.
    – Theraot
    Feb 7, 2014 at 6:30
  • @Theraot what if they ask about method of doing something?
    – Anixx
    Mar 24, 2016 at 22:17

"How do we call sth?" has a different meaning. The word "call" here means "to bring sth" or "to make sth or sb aware". Like for example "how do I call the elevator?"; here you're asking about how to make the elevator come to your floor so that you can use it and the answer would be for example "You just press the button to the right."

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    I don't think that's what "call" means here. I think a more formal way of phrasing the OP's phrase would be "How do we refer to {something} in English?" I think the OP is using "call" to mean "refer to", as in "That animal over there is called a 'goat'". Feb 6, 2014 at 21:36
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    I think Mina Michael's point is that “how do you call” has a different meaning to most native speakers, which is why it sounds strange to use it to mean “refer to.” Feb 6, 2014 at 22:47
  • Agreed. That's not what "call" is intended to mean, but that's probably the only way the sentence can be interpreted literally. Feb 7, 2014 at 0:29
  • @FrustratedWithFormsDesigner True. I think we mean "refer to" when we use "call" this way. :-)
    – Louel
    Feb 7, 2014 at 5:21

It is perfectly alright for, let's say, a French person to say 'How do you say 'diarrhéa' in English?' You can also ask 'How do they spell diarrhoea in America?' (Answer: 'They don't know how to'.)

What we can't say, but you apparently can, is 'How do you call the condition where you are constantly running to the loo'. As you point out we say 'What do you call ...?'

So this is all to do with the verb 'to call', which takes a number of interrogative pronouns including 'what' and 'how', but they each imply something different. 'What do you call your son?' will attract an answer of Charles Anthony, or something. However 'How do you call your son' is likely to attract an answer of something like 'I open the window and yell "Charlie"'.

So you can see that 'How do you call a thing with four wheels and an engine', doesn't really make sense. It is to do with the fact that 'call' is used in different senses. Although I am sure you find a way round this in the Philippines.

  • 1
    I think it has something to do with the fact that we mean "refer to" when we use "call" this way.
    – Louel
    Feb 7, 2014 at 5:25
  • "likely to attract an answer of something like 'I open the window and yell "Charlie"'" - OK, but cannot it be just shortened to "I call him "Charlie"?
    – Anixx
    Mar 24, 2016 at 22:20
  • @Anixx No. That is my point. How do you call your son means In what manner do you call him The answer could be I call "Charlie". But I call him Charlie is the answer to a different question - namely What do you call your son?.
    – WS2
    Mar 24, 2016 at 23:49

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