“How to” isn’t a question

The word “hoe” and a verb in the infinitive can be used in Dutch to fomulate a short and snappy question. The same structure in English describes a set of instructions.

We regularly come across section headings asking, for instance, “How to install the software?” or “How to pay?” although neither of those phrases is actually a question, a sentence with an active verb. So, taking the first as an example, how should you form the question?

  • Well, I’ve just given you one way: use an active verb.
    How should I install the software?
    How can you install the software?
  • Or you can use a passive verb, if more appropriate to the style:
    How can the software be installed?
    How is the software installed?
  • And obviously, if you aren’t actually asking a question and want to give instructions, just zap the question mark.
    How to install the software
    Installing the software
    Software installation

There are a couple of annoying adverts on my Facebook at the minute with titles “How to drink beer with the Dutch?” and (for a game) “How to loot?” – a couple of prime examples.

Prevalence: low. But high visibility: it’s often in headers and customer-facing marketing texts.
Frequency: low. There won’t usually be lots of mulitple instances on a single site.
Native: no. It just doesn’t ring true.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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