It seems an open-and-shut case, the correct version for asking the word of something in English is

What do you call…?

And yet the sheer number of second-language speakers of English who ask daily, the following

How do you call…?

is extraordinary and cannot be ignored easily. Romance languages such as French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian use the adverb how in “What do you call this?”

Comment appelle-t-on cela ? (French)
¿Cómo se llama esto? (Spanish)
Como se chama isso? (Portuguese)
Come si chiama questo? (Italian)

And apparently, Slavic speakers make the same mistake too. However, if the verb call is replaced with a different verb, i.e. say, the request "What do you say this?" becomes extremely unidiomatic; the determiner what must be replaced with how.

How do you say this?

That phrase has the following meaning: “In what way or manner do you say this word?”

The “how do you call...” construct is uttered even by proficient speakers of English. Would anyone have noticed the discordance in the following quotation if I hadn't emphasized that expression?

... actor was so obsessed with accurately portraying his character that he started losing sleep over it. “It’s a very – how do you call that? – sensorial condition. So I’m like, ‘I need to experience that, be in that zone when you’re constantly paranoid, where your senses work at 200 percent.’ You hear more intensely, you feel more intensely. And so, because I got so anxious I stopped sleeping, but not as a choice. And, all of a sudden, I started to have these symptoms,” he explains.

euronews.com (Mar 21, 2016)

Perhaps there is evidence to suggest that the construct “How do you call (something)” has begun entering the English lexicon, as demonstrated in a speech made in Hanover, Germany, by the current President of the USA, Barack Obama

“I truly believe you’ve shown us the leadership of steady hands,” Obama said, imitating the way she likes to hold her hands in public, with the fingers arranged in a sort of rhombus, or as the Germans call it, a Raute. “How do you call it?” Obama said with a smile. “The Merkel Raute?”

Time (April 26, 2016)

UPDATE 5 June 2016

Two more examples of just how common it is to hear and read the ‘ungrammatical’ construction by both non-native and native speakers.

  • Novak Djokovic confirmed he has become a vegetarian after already having adopted a gluten-free diet. "It's been almost a year. How do you call that? A pescatarian, a vegan with eating a little bit of fish here and there." May 27, 2016


I didn’t think my leaving US Vogue would be big news. I went – how do you call it – viral. That was funny. I just thought. ‘Oh good, maybe I’ll get a job now’. Grace Coddington 21 May 2016

Not that long ago, I posted the following three links that clearly explained to a user on EL&U why the constructs “How do you call ... ?” or “How would you name … ?” are ungrammatical.

2. What vs. How from Pearson and Longman's message board (also cited in an answer)
3. How to ask for the name of something?

The user remained unimpressed and totally unconvinced, while I asked permission to cite his words which he agreed to, I have preferred to keep him anonymous:

(2) For example, "Are you crazy about Jack?" - "How do you mean 'crazy'?'' - It would be way more logical to say that the speaker here is, in fact, inquiring the reazon why the interlocutor said "crazy", and to say that the speaker is "inquiring the way how his interlocutor means the word 'crazy'" would be quite a stretch. @_____

Interestingly, the British English corpus yielded no results for “How do you call...” but when I searched the American English corpus using Google Ngram the following graph appeared. Admittedly, the results support overwhelmingly the “What do you call..” but I never doubted that for one instance. I am however open-minded enough to ask myself "why" and "how" this slow shift has come about.

enter image description here


  1. What evidence is there that "How do you call ..." is, or is not, a legitimate phrasal usage or expression in English?
  2. Could it be called a dialectal variant? Why is it considered non-standard?
  3. How do linguists define the "How do you call ..." vs. "What do you call..." debate? Has any interest been shown in this lexical divergence between Romance languages and English?
  • 3
    @TimRomano I thought someone would say that, like the "back of the queue" vs "back of the line" question a few weeks ago. But this time there was no mention in the papers, none at all. Who noticed? only little ole' me
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 20:40
  • 10
    Your Ngram "evidence" is bogus. If you look, you get "how do you call the fire department", "how do you call a waitress", "how do you call a stored-function from Java code", a couple of writings by Indian authors, and Don Quixote, translated from Spanish. The increase in usage you see starting about 1980 is entirely due to computer-related "how do you call a method/function/subroutine" stuff.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 21:34
  • 4
    I've not noticed anybody but non-native speakers saying How do you call...? (except when "appropriate," as in How do you call Rome, Italy?, equaling In what way or manner do you call Rome, Italy?) And as far as I know, linguists don't call it nothing, since there ain't no debate over which is standard. There's not even a "doubt", I mean "question." Commented May 9, 2016 at 21:35
  • 9
    If you point at a feline-looking animal and ask "How do you call that?", I'd reply "Here, kitty, kitty!". If you ask "What do you call that?", I'd reply "It's a cat."
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 21:46
  • 4
    How do you build a house? Saying "What do you build a house?" is meaningless, as is saying "Which do you build a house?" Building a computer program is the same as building a house -- you take pieces of "lumber" and nail them together. One of the pieces of lumber you might use is referred to as a "method call". So "How do you call a subroutine?" is asking "How do I nail this method call to the rest of the program in a way that makes sense?"
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 21:50

4 Answers 4


We are confusing and conflating these forms here:

1. How do you say ... (in X)? This is asking for a word or phrase, perhaps specifying in language X.
Example: *How do you say you're welcome in Hebrew? How do you say sandals in Japanese?*
2. What do you call … (in X)? This is asking for a word or phrase for something you're pointing at or describing. It may expect an answer in English, or in another language.
Example: *What do you call a helicopter in Cantonese? What do you call the blue thing on top of that box? What do you call that color? What do you call that color in French?*
3. How do you call … ? This is asking for a procedure: how do you call a waitress, a cat, a taxi. The expected answer can't be Toots, Felix, Yellow Cab.
4. What's ... name? This is asking for a noun word or phrase in the same language.
Examples: What's your name? What's the name of the movie you saw? 5. How do you ...? This question can take lots of different predicates, and the answers will all include verbs.

All these forms are good, grammatical, idiomatic English when used this way. Any other uses of these forms would be non-idiomatic, non-standard, and maybe incomprehensible.

The difficulty arises when foreigners use their own grammar and thought patterns, but with English words. Lei come si chiama? in Italian, literally means how do you call yourself? and does not expect the answer “I use a cellphone”. In idiomatic English this is what's your name? The Italian is wired to use this form for forms 2 and 4 above, never using the word “name” in questions like those. In fact, if an Italian pointed to something and asked another Italian what that thing's name is, he would be thought facetious, expecting an answer like “It reminds me of Sally, so let's just call it Sally for now.”

This difficulty cuts both ways. If you ask a Spanish speaker for his name, using form 4 above, you would say “Cual es su nombre”. He would be within his rights to answer “My name is the unique label by which I am distinguished from others in the room”. You should ask como se llama, but you're not wired for that, it's not one of the forms on our list.

So now to answer the questions.

What evidence is there that "How do you call..." is, or is not, a legitimate phrasal usage or expression in English? How do you call is legitimate in English – see form 3 – but only in the use allowed in form 3. Otherwise you do two things: you risk not being understood within the flow of speech, and you cause a needless proliferation of forms when we have a good one present already. I know this is getting into the descriptive-prescriptive debate, which is a different can of worms, but we're there anyway just by discussing the question. Your Ngram is all the evidence needed for pointing out that this is ono-standard. As for legitimate, well, that's an opinion.

Could it be called a dialectal variant? Why is it considered non-standard? These are two questions. First, no, I know of no such dialectical variant. Second, I have already shown why it's non-standard above. And indeed your Ngram shows that it's non-standard. There's another thing about Ngrams: in a world in which educational standards are dropping, along with IQs pace the Flynn effect, more and more examples of poor English are going to show up. Just because a form is standard in language A doesn't mean that it should become standard in language B, and this becomes very obvious when A and B are from different families.

Your final question pair:
How (!) do linguists define the "How do you call..." vs. "What do you call..." debate? Has any interest been shown in this lexical divergence between Romance languages and English?
The ! is unnecessary – this is a perfectly valid use of form 5 above. AFAIK, This debate doesn't have a name of its own – it's not important enough to deserve one.
The divergence between Romance and English here is not primarily lexical, but structural. As such, it's of prime importance in language learning – as you can see by the mistakes of those who haven't paid attention. Unfortunately, most language teaching starts with vocabulary to the exclusion of structure, so they teach the como se llama usted : what's your name equivalence almost as a single lexical chunk on each side of the colon, making comprehension and analysis of the structures very difficult for the learner. It would be far better if they used this as an early opportunity to teach that learning a foreign language is not just – indeed not even – a matter of word lists.

  • Because there is a bounty involved I am going to be "difficult" and ask the following question. If "How do you call a ..." is legitimate in English (How do you call is legitimate in English – see form 3 – but only in the use allowed in form 3.) why are there zero results in the British English corpus Ngram? But if we switch to AmEng, there are instances recorded.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 5:54
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA I am not sure I understand you. After questioning the legitimacy of the usage, you take Ngram to be saying it's legitimate in AmEng. Are you saying AmEng is not English? And in British English, how would I ask how to call a taxi, a waitress, or the AA (the roadside assistance people, == USA AAA)? This in my experience is fairly common. I've seen it used by the poor Greek boy himself on Takimag.com - does that site count as British or American?
    – frank
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 7:42
  • I'm asking why aren't there any instances of "How do you call a...." recorded on BrEng Ngram. Although there are a number of hits for How do you call it, between 1940 and 2008, which I find interesting.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 16:12
  • Hmmm.... it appears that Ngram can have plenty of non-standard stuff, and omit plenty of standard stuff. An old word for called is hight: I googled that, and got many more hits for mis-spellings of height than for what I wanted. I guess "How do I call a taxi?" hasn't found its way into too many science textbooks since 1500. So I still stand by what I say: "How do you call it" is non-standard.
    – frank
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 16:22
  • My son textbook is even worse, it said "what is this in English" Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 9:57

Non-native speakers' "How do you call this?" is very infectious, and I'm unsurprised that Obama would use it while he was in Germany. But I've never seen it used by native speakers outside of the influence of non-native speakers.

'Call' in this sense takes two or three arguments: the word, the thing being named, and, optionally, the language speakers. So we have

We call these 'shoes.'

These are called 'shoes.'


We call that 'running.'

That is called 'running.'

I was originally going to say that 'shoes' and 'running' get replaced by 'what' here because they both refer to a word, so they're nouns. That's not exactly right—they can't be replaced by other terms that refer to the words, as in

*That is called the word 'shoes.'

*That is called the word 'running.'

I'm not totally sure what explains that.

You mention:

However, if the verb call is swapped with say the following "What do you say this?" is extremely unidiomatic; what must be replaced with how.

How do you say this?

That phrase has the following meaning: “In what way or manner do you say this word?”

In "What do you call this?," 'this' is the thing the questioner wants a word for. Trying to use 'this' in the same way, "How do you say this?" is not grammatical.

Compare "How do you say these?" This might be clearer if you look at what answering the question with the same syntax would look like. The question, before wh-movement:

*You say these how?

And a possible answer:

*We say these 'shoes.'

'Say' can't take arguments like that.


In answer to your questions:

  1. What evidence is there that "How do you call..." is, or is not, a legitimate phrasal usage or expression in English?

"How do you call..." is perfectly legitimate English. It just means something different from "What do you call...".

  1. Could it be called a dialectal variant? Why is it considered non-standard?

The phrase "How do you call..." is not "non-standard". However, people who are not fully fluent in English will often use it inappropriately, when they mean "What do you call...". As I said, those phrases mean two different things.

  1. How (!) do linguists define the "How do you call..." vs. "What do you call..." debate? Has any interest been shown in this lexical divergence between Romance languages and English?

I'm no linguist, but I would guess that they would call the debate "specious", as there is nothing to "debate". The only mildly interesting question is how English came to have a single word "call" with two relatively distinct meanings, but then there are a lot of words in English like that.

  • 1
    If, instead, you had posted an explanation about the Ngram results I would have appreciated your answer much more. You are very capable of explaining computer programming to the layperson, which you did in the comments. I did not know that How do you call a method/function/subroutine? is not asking for a noun, until you explained. Why not include something about this usage?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 8:11
  • @Mari-LouA - Because "How do you call a cat" is not a very frequent usage, and unlikely to appear in published works. And your question is purportedly about the propriety of using "How do you call..." instead of "What do you call...", and that's been well explained several times over.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 11:32
  • @Mari-LouA - You posted a bounty after it seemed that the question had already been thoroughly discussed, so I figured you wanted explicit answers to your explicit questions. That's what I gave you.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 0:02
  • I've deleted my other comments, they have fallen on deaf ears.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 8:27

'How' asks about something you do and is answered primarily using a verb. So, the answer to "Are you crazy about Jack? - How do you mean 'crazy'?" uses verbs - I can't sleep nights, I think about him all the time, and I just want to go out dancing all the time.

'What' asks for a label or name and is answered primarily using a noun. So, the answer to "Are you crazy about Jack? - What do you mean 'crazy'?" uses nouns - (I mean...) 'mad', 'certifiable', 'ready-for-the-asylum'.

Just because we can understand unidiomatic usage does not make it 'right'. But language usage 'rightness' is constantly changing and it seems likely that 'How do you call that' (rather than 'What do you call that' ) will become used more and more.

  • If some were to ask me "How crazy are you about Jack?" I might well reply: I am obsessed, madly and passionately ecstatic, completely and utterly smitten... The only verb I used was "be".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 13:10
  • Ye-es - a verb is almost unavoidable in an answer. The point I am trying to make is that all of your synonyms - to be obsessed/madly and passionately ecstatic/completely and utterly smitten - all of them emphasise the process, the 'doing-word'. How, when used idiomatically, asks you to explain something you do rather than something that is (for which we use what).
    – Dan
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 14:05
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA: You’re cheating.  How has multiple meanings.  All the rest of this discussion involves meaning #1, “in what way or manner; by what means?”.  Your “crazy” example is using meaning #2, “to what extent, degree, etc.?”. Commented May 13, 2016 at 4:13
  • The crazy example cited in the post belongs to an ELU user who has chosen to remain anonymous, I only reported his words. My comment is in response to Dan's answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 5:36

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