52

I live in a country where English is not the native language. Oftentimes I hear my coworkers say they want to know or determine "how it looks like". This is grammatically closer to our native language than "what it looks like", which is the version I try to use.

I there a difference between the two, or should I just stop being bothered?

3
  • 2
    Just BTW, this is an example I often use when people ask what an "idiom" is. If someone asks, "How does Sally look?", if I interpret the question literally, I might answer, "With her eyes." But the answer the person is really expecting is more likely, "She's very pretty" or "She looks terrible since she caught that disease" or some such.
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 16:22
  • 4
    This has been driving me crazy lately, I hear it everywhere!
    – wvdz
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 19:59
  • I can second the experience that this [mis]use is becoming incredibly common. I thought it was perhaps regional or limited to certain schools of ESL but it seems to be everywhere. Sometimes words other than "looks" will be used (i.e. "sounds", "seems", etc). IMHO the confusion is over the definition of the word "how" stemming from the fact that it's perfectly fine to use it without "like" at the end (since "what <something> <somethings> like" is descriptive of "how <something> <somethings>"). Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 15:42

4 Answers 4

48

Irrespective of the context, it is either "what it looks like" or "how it looks", not "how it looks like".

However, let me add that as much as it is grammatically incorrect, you can find any number of occurrences of the phrase in daily use. You will not see "how it looks like" in the writing of learned English users, though.

According to Google nGram, "how it looks like" is hardly used in Google Books. We may suppose that the difference is between 'popular' and 'careful' usage.

"how it looks" and "what it looks like" are popular, "how it looks like" flatlines

8
  • Thank you, I did throw in a google fight between the two phrases, but that didn't come out conclusive. Glad this does. Interesting shift in preference as well :)
    – Stim
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 12:17
  • @Stim The difference is between 'popular' and 'careful' usage.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 12:20
  • 16
    Notice how it looks like the phrase "how it looks like" is barely used at all.
    – yoozer8
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 15:36
  • 2
    Those 280M "results" from Google almost certainly don't actually exist. They're a side-effect of Google's "quick and dirty" way of estimating total likely results. In principle (not in practice, I know) there might be only a few dozen actual instances - the rest would be inaccurate guesses extrapolated from the fact that the shorter "sub-phrases" ("how it looks" and "it looks like") are very, very common. Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 19:52
  • 4
    @Michael, I'd be more inclined to use "How does it look?" Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 20:49
32

"How it looks like" is not something a native English speaker would say.

There is a slight difference between "How it looks" and "What it looks like":

"Tell me what the sculpture looks like?"

... invites a detailed answer, probably involving the word "like":

"The sculpture looks like a killer whale leaping out of the sea."

Whereas...

"Tell me how the sculpture looks?"

... invites a value judgement:

"The sculpture looks pretty good."

The two can be used interchangeably, but the emphasis between objective and subjective descriptions is definitely slightly different.

3
  • 2
    I agree but I'd be more emphatic. If someone asked me, "How does the new sculpture look?", I would be very unlikely to reply with a description. I would almost surely say that it was pretty or it was ugly or some other statement about its quality. In some contexts other sorts of qualitative statements might apply, like, "How does the new headquarters building look?" "It's almost finished." "How does Bob look?" "Pretty good, I think he's almost recovered from his illness." Etc.
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 16:19
  • 1
    Except for the first sentence, your answer is at a tangent.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 4:18
  • 2
    @kris the question asks if there is a difference between the two.
    – slim
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 8:13
10

The phrase "how it looks like" is grammatically incorrect.

In English you would say:

"what it looks like"

or

"how it looks"

Both of these phrases have the same meaning.

1

To establish whether a question is valid, we can establish whether there exists a valid statement that the question stems from.

In Standard English, to turn a statement into a binary question, we need to follow one step:

  1. Perform subject-auxiliary inversion.

For example to turn the statement

This vehicle is a van.

into a question, we need to move the subject (this vehicle) after the verb (is):

Is this vehicle a van?

In some cases, we need to introduce an auxiliary verb instead. To turn this statement:

This vehicle looks cute.

into a question, we need to introduce the auxiliary verb do (which will take the form does to accommodate the singular first grammatical person of this vehicle):

Does this van look cute?

In Standard English, there are two ways to describe the appearance of an object.

  1. An objective way, which we use when we want to understand the looks of something descriptively. For example, because we're trying to find that object based on its looks. This typically takes a noun. For example: The vehicle looks like a van.
  2. A subjective way, which we use to express our opinion or impression of an object. This typically takes an adjective. For example: The vehicle looks cute.

In Standard English, to turn a statement into a non-binary question, we need to follow these steps:

  1. Turn the statement into a binary question.
  2. Remove the word we intend to ask about.
  3. Place a corresponding WH question word at the beginning of the sentence.

For nouns, we use the "what" question word. For adjectives, we use the "how" question word.

Let's do this with our two statements. Please note the second step is intermediary so it will not always make sense semantically, but it's required grammatically.

The vehicle looks cute.

  1. Does the vehicle look cute?
  2. Does the vehicle look?
  3. How does the vehicle look?

The vehicle looks like a van.

  1. Does the vehicle look like a van?
  2. Does the vehicle look like?
  3. What does the vehicle look like?

How does it look like? is a semantic soup and doesn't exist in Standard English.

2
  • 1
    You're answering the wrong question. It's not asking about "How does it look like?" but "how it looks like" (and "what it looks like"), which would be embedded in a longer sentence.
    – Laurel
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 10:45
  • It's the same syntax. I'm answering more questions and not different ones. If you read my answer in full, you'll find your answer there. Please exercise some patience. This is an educational forum.
    – Bugs
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 15:36

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.