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Is It Correct To Say “How Do You Mean?”

There are times when we are talking to someone, and it is not clear exactly what they are trying to say. We need more details to help us understand them. There are many ways we can ask for more information, and “How do you mean?” is one way we can ask them to explain. 

It is correct to say “How do you mean?” in informal contexts when you want more information about what someone says to give you a better understanding. For example, if your friend says they just finished the most challenging test of their life, you can ask, “How do you mean?” if you want to know why it was so hard.

What Does “How Do You Mean?” Mean?

“How do you mean?” is a question you ask when you want someone to give you more information or details about what they have just said (source). It promotes more conversation, so you fully understand what someone says.

“How” is a question word that begins many categories of questions. It can mean “in what way,” “why,” or even “to what degree” (source). The context in which you use “how” is essential to determining which meaning applies. It is because there are so many meanings of “how” that it works so well to ask for more information.

Similarly, “mean” has different definitions. It can mean “to intend” when you want to know what someone is trying to imply. You can also use it to signify the importance of something, like when you say your family “means” the world to you (source). 

Since you are asking for more information when you say, “How do you mean?” the definition of “mean” is “intend.” You are asking someone exactly what they intended to imply by what they said. The definition of “how” depends on what the person said.

How Do You Answer “How Do You Mean?”

When someone asks you, “How do you mean?” you should answer with a full explanation of exactly what you intended by what you said. What information you give will depend on what you initially said. 

“How do you mean?” is a flexible question you can use in various situations because “how” has many meanings. You must listen carefully and be present in the conversation to answer the question correctly. 

For example, if you say, “That was the hardest run I have ever done,” and someone asks, “How do you mean?” they want to know why it was the hardest run. You will need to answer by explaining the details of the run that made it hard. You might tell them that it was all uphill. 

In another context, you might say, “This feels like a long wait.” If someone asks you, “How do you mean?” you will need to answer in what ways the wait feels long. You might tell them that the heat of the sun beating down on you and the hunger making your stomach growl make it feel long. 

Alternatively, if you say to someone, “She does things strangely,” and the person you are speaking to asks you, “How do you mean?” you will need to give details about how she does things strangely. You might explain that she will only water her plants at midnight. 

Even though the context changes the meaning of “how,” it is most important to remember that when someone asks, “How do you mean?” they want you to give more information about what you say.

How Do You Use “How Do You Mean?”

You use “How do you mean?” as a question to ask the speaker to give more details about something they have said to you. If you need more clarity about instructions or are just curious to know exactly what they mean so you can continue the conversation, then you can use it.

You usually use “How do you mean?” as a question on its own rather than part of a longer sentence. So when you need more information from someone, you can simply ask the question. If you would like them to be specific about what information they give, then you can repeat the part of what they said that you do not understand.

When Can You Use “How Do You Mean?”

You can use “How do you mean?” whenever you need more information. You should use it primarily in informal situations because it is a bit casual for formal contexts. However, you can use it in semiformal contexts as a polite way to ask for more details.

There are many situations where you can ask, “How do you mean?” to increase your understanding of what someone is saying. The chart below shows some examples of the different meanings of “how.”

Definition of “How”Initial statementQuestionAnswer
In what wayShe is so mean.How do you mean? She always says terrible things about other people, even when they are trying to be nice to her. 
WhyI can’t do this anymore. How do you mean?I am so tired my legs feel like jelly; I can’t keep doing this workout.
To what effectThis is going to be difficult. How do you mean?I don’t think we can accomplish the job on time. 
To what extentHe is the oldest person I knowHow do you mean?He is 102 years old and very wise. 
In what conditionI’m feeling awful.How do you mean?I have a headache, chills, a cough, and no energy.

Using “How Do You Mean?” In a Full Sentence

“How do you mean?” functions as an independent interjection. It is a full sentence on its own; however, you can use it in a longer sentence, especially if you want someone to give you precise information about what they said. 

When someone tells you something and you need more information, you can simply ask, “How do you mean?” For example, if your boss says they need you to draft a better proposal than you usually create, you might want to know what you have been doing wrong. You can ask, “How do you mean?” to get that information. 

If someone makes many statements in a row and you need to ask them for more details about one thing they have said, you can add to “How do you mean?” by repeating the words they used that you want more information about. 

For example, someone might say, “My classes are hard, and I am so tired all the time.” You might only want to know why they think their classes are hard, so you could ask, “How do you mean your classes are so hard?” Repeating these words would ensure they tell you the information you want to hear.

When Not to Use “How Do You Mean?”

You do not use “How do you mean?” when you do not need or want any more information about what someone says. Similarly, you do not need to ask this question if you do not wish to continue the conversation. 

If someone is precise and detailed when they speak to you, you do not need to ask, “How do you mean?” to get more information. They have already given you the necessary details, and asking the question might confuse them as they struggle to explain what they have said differently. 

Sometimes you might not want to continue a conversation with someone because you do not like them or the topic they are discussing. If this is the case, you do not ask, “How do you mean?” because if you do, they will have to answer the question. 

For example, if someone says, “She is the worst person I know,” and you do not want to talk about someone behind their back, you do not want to ask for more information. Instead, you can change the topic or make an excuse to end the conversation and leave.

What Can You Use Instead of “How Do You Mean?”

You can use many questions instead of “How do you mean?” to get someone to tell you more about what they said. You can use any of the definitions of “how” mentioned above to get specific information.

You can also opt for one of these questions: 

  • What do you mean?
  • Can you please explain what you just said?
  • Can you please give me more details?
  • Why do you say that? 
  • What are you talking about?

The closest meaning is “What do you mean?” and we use it more than “How do you mean?” If we are really going to get into the difference between them, “How” is more about what we’ve defined in the table above, while “what” asks more about the content or meaning of your words.

However, we use both questions interchangeably in most informal and semiformal contexts.

Question Words

In English, many words indicate questions. These words usually appear at the beginning of a sentence, showing that you are asking a question. The word you use reveals the information you are looking for (source). 

Image by Emily Morter via Unsplash

Knowing which words connect to what information is essential to ensure you get the answer you want. Can you imagine asking someone, “Why is the bathroom?” You would get a lecture on why you need to use a bathroom! 

This chart shows some of the most common question words in English and the information you will get by using each. 

Question WordConnected InformationExample
WhoA person; what personWho is going to feed the fish over the summer?
WhatA thing or an action What are you doing tomorrow? What is that puddle of green stuff on the floor?
WhereA placeWhere are you going for your vacation?
WhyThe reason or explanation of somethingWhy did you decide to be a teacher?
HowThe way in which something is doneHow do you make your tomato sauce? 
WhenAt what time When do you plan to arrive? 
WhichA specific someone or something in a set of more than oneWhich student is the new one? Which color do you want the decorations to be?

Other words create questions when they appear at the beginning of a sentence but do not indicate a question when you use them in other parts of a sentence. Below are some examples.

  • Is/Are
  • Can/Could
  • Should
  • Isn’t/Aren’t
  • Do/Did

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For more information on question words, check out our article What or Which: Differences and Usage.

Final Thoughts

We often want or need more information from someone, but it might be challenging to remember which question word will give us the detail we need. Asking “How do you mean?” is a great way to politely let someone know they were unclear and get the information you want without accidentally using the wrong question word.