I am writing a post about the difference between what vs how, but then got stuck with how to explain this.

We say 'what is it called?', not 'how is it called?' when we are asking the way to call something.

But, we say 'how is it spelled?', not 'what is it spelled?' when we are asking the way to spell something.

Is there a good way to explain this? Is it because, in 'what is it called?', we are asking about the name of the object, and not necessarily the way to call it? I think if I write this, that will confuse my readers even more because they can also think that the name of the object is also the way we call it.

  • Think of 'What is it called?' as being short for 'What name is it called by?' – Kate Bunting Oct 25 at 8:46
  • @KateBunting - Never use a preposition to end a sentence with! – Hot Licks Oct 25 at 12:48
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    Not all languages agree with English. Frequently-used German "Wie hießt er?" is literally "How is he called?" Also found in Middle English, I guess. Anyway, it you try to do this logically, you will have to also explain why it is different in other languages. – GEdgar Oct 25 at 14:59
  • Note that although How is it spelled? is correct (though I would say spelt), you can also ask What is the spelling? – nnnnnn Oct 26 at 9:39

How can always be replaced by "In what manner..." or "By what means...", "What must I do to..." It asks for the method by which the verb is done.

Thus we can say "How is it spelled?" because the meaning is "What is the method to spell this?" and (possibly idiomatically) the answer is the letters needed.*

"How is it called?" meaning "What is the name of this thing?" doesn't make sense: if you want to know the name of something, then "In what manner..." "What must I do to..." "What is the method for..." are inappropriate. As Greybeard comments, call in such a question means call forth, or summon. "What is the method to call it?" does make sense and "How is it called" is valid. You would get the answer "You speak its name."

So, if you want to know what its name is, the correct question is "What is it called?"

*An exceptionally obtuse answer would be "You write the correct letters in the right order," but even "How do I spell that?" (rather than "How is that spelled?") doesn't really warrant that answer. Using the verb spell asks for information about the spelling rather than how to write.

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  • Thanks! I guess I never thought of spelling as a method to read something, but i guess that make sense if I think of the letter arrangements as codes that represent meanings as @LPH suggested. – CuriousM Oct 25 at 15:43

Here are some questions together with the answers you might get from a native English speaker

Q: What is that animal called?

A: It is called a dog. English people call it a dog.

Q: How is that animal called?

A: It is called by blowing a whistle. We call the animal to us by making a high-pitched sound.

Q: How is that word spelled? The word you just said?

A: I said the word "family". It is spelled F-A-M-I-L-Y

Q: What is that word spelled?

A: I'm sorry, I don't understand the question.


The verb "to call" has many meanings. You may be confusing these meanings although originally they came from the same root. Examples:

Wife: I call my husband John by shouting "John!" very loudly because he is slightly deaf. In this case "to call" means to request someone to answer you or to come to you.

Mother: I call my son John, "Jack" because he prefers that name. In this case to call means to address someone or to mention their name to a third party.

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  • It seems that the OP's question is concerned about the possible usage of "what" and "how" not across the range of meanings of the verbal form "call" but only in reference to the sole meaning "to give a name". – LPH Oct 25 at 14:37
  • That's right. I was just wondering about these two particular cases. – CuriousM Oct 25 at 15:40

This is essentially true (call, spell).

The logic to justify this usage is simply that a concept is being made to correspond to an element of a set, the set of representations, which are words, and the concern is with which element does that or, said otherwise, with what element is suitable for representation; therefore "what" is the natural word that is being suggested. When dealing with spelling the concern is with the means of implementing a code (how to implement the graphic form properly) and thus the word that is being suggested is "how".

Notice that in the ngram above the form "How is it called?" although not found nowadays has been used in the past (18th century), for instance in this source. This is because the alternative of thinking of words as arrangements of sounds or letters is what instigated the choice of wh-word: "How is the arrangement of sounds (letters)"; as this way of thinking is rather indirect, not what is obviously more relevant, it's not been preferred. One might wonder, by the way, whether or not this latter manner of asking this question should not be due to a certain extent to the influence of French, a language in which "how" is the usual word for this question (the situation is reversed (ngram), comment=how, qu'est-ce que=what) .

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  • "How is it called?" although very rare is also used. I had a look at some examples: they are either wrong or use "to call" in the sense of "to summon", e.g. "How is the demon called from the pits of Hell?" – Greybeard Oct 25 at 9:54
  • @Greybeard There is at least one that verifies my contention, but admitedly, if it's not much to speak of, it must be representative of a trend that is not confined to the sole province of the books: "But he has many powerful, how is it called? …. yes, connections." (books.google.fr/…). Another one: "Parkour? Silat? Ba Gua? Or, how is it called, that Indian stuff?". "How" is put for "what", in these two examples. – LPH Oct 25 at 14:25
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    "But he has many powerful, how is it called? …. yes, connections." is spoken by a Frenchman - the non-idiomatic use is to indicate his "Frenchness". – Greybeard Oct 25 at 15:08
  • @Greybeard Had I read the text just one sentence above I might have got the idea! Right! It's not used at all nowadays, but I think it was very probably used to a certain extent at least in the past: I found another one. – LPH Oct 25 at 15:21
  • I have no knowledge of French, but it's interesting that the reverse is what's used in French. – CuriousM Oct 25 at 15:39

It may be helpful to look at all of the W's.

Why was a thing made out of what? Why versus what. As in the nature of things.

Who owns which animal? Which type of animal? Who versus which. As in, which spelling is correct according to whom?

Can't understand how unless know this or that. How versus this and that. As in, how to spell a word carefully upon some research.

When will you be where? When versus where.

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