Recommended level: Upper intermediate
Much of the information in this post is paraphrased from 300 Practical English Words and Phrases. If you find this information useful, you will probably find the book useful as well.
“How about” is used for suggestions. Note the 3 structures:
“How about trying something a little more difficult?” (How about + verb+ing)
“How about we try something a little more difficult?” (How about + subject + present simple verb)
“How about something a little more difficult?” (How about + noun, pronoun, or noun phrase)
"How about" is also used for offers ("How about a drink?" / "How about I buy you a drink?")
“What about” is also used for suggestions with structures 1 and 3 above. It is also used for identifying potential obstacles, problems, or concerns, and what we should do about them. Another way to think of this is that "what about" is used for mentioning potential objections or things we need to take into consideration when making a decision. It is usually followed by a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase. Note the example:
“Mom! I’m going to see a movie with Monica tonight.”
“A movie? What about your homework?” (What's going to happen with your homework? Have you thought about this? I'm not going to let you watch a movie with Monica unless your homework is done first.)
“How about” and “what about” can be used interchangeably when you want to ask someone to respond to something, usually to give their opinion (“I think we should leave early. What about you?” / “I think we should leave early. How about you?”)
They can also be used interchangeably to ask if something or someone is included. (“I invited my sister and my parents.” “How about your brother?” / “What about your brother?”)
“How about” and “What about” are two common English sentence constructions. They are both used to introduce options and possibilities, and they can be used interchangeably in some situations. However, there are a couple of situations where only one is possible. By reading and interacting with this text, I hope you will feel more comfortable using these question forms and understanding their differences.
“How about” is most commonly used for giving suggestions. This means offering potential courses of action. "What about" can be used for suggestions as well, but it is less flexible. We will address this later in the article. For now, note the three common structures for making suggestions with "how about."
How about + verb+ing
“How about waiting until the shoes are on sale?” (Is it possible for you not to buy the shoes right now? Can you wait until they’re on sale? This seems like a good idea, especially if you’re concerned about the price.)
How about + subject + present simple verb
“How about you wait in the car? There is no point in both of us going into the store.” (I think it’s a good idea if you wait in the car while I go into the store.)
How about + noun, pronoun, or noun phrase
“How about the one on the left?” (I think the one of the left looks good, and I think you should consider it.)
Here are some other examples.
“How about you take the green one and I take the red one?” (I'm suggesting the possibility of you taking the green one and me taking the red one.)
“How about you send me a text when you’re ready to go?” (I want you to send me a text when you’re ready to go. I think this is a good idea.)
“How about Dan?” (I think Dan would be a good choice for this situation/job/etc.)
“How about you buy me a drink, and we go from there?” (I’d like you to buy me a drink, and we can continue our conversation after that.)
“How about that one?” (That one looks good. I think you should seriously consider choosing it. What do you think of it?)
“How about leaving the door open, so the dog can come back inside when he feels like it?” (Why don’t we just leave the door open? I think this is a good solution, so we don’t have to worry about when the dog is ready to come back inside the house.)
As you can see, "how about" opens the door to different possibilities.
Practice: Your friend wants to hang out with you tonight. Suggest an activity that you can do together. (Example: "How about going downtown?" / "How about we go downtown?")
Moving on, "How about" is the only phrase you can use to make an offer, especially if it's the first thing you say.
Note the examples:
"How about a game of cards?" (I want to play cards. In this case, I might already be holding a deck of cards in my hand, as I am eager to play, and I am offering to start the game.)
"How about a drink? You look thirsty." (I'd like to offer you a drink.)
"How about some popcorn?" (Who wants popcorn? I can make it.)
These sentences could be used in the middle of a conversation to make suggestions as well, in which case "what about" is also possible. However, if one of the sentences above is the first thing you say because you want to make an offer or you want to see if anyone in the room is interested in a particular activity, use "how about." It's similar to saying "Who wants _____?" if you're offering or suggesting something to a group, or "Would you like _____?" if you're offering or suggesting something to one person.
Practice: Imagine that a group of friends have come to your house. Offer them something with "How about."
If someone suggests a course of action, and you want to bring up (meaning, mention) a potential obstacle or problem that needs to be considered before that course of action is followed, use "what about." "What about" is most commonly followed by a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase. Note the examples for context:
"I can stay for two more hours."
“What about your mom? Won't she be upset?" (Remember? You told me your mom expected you to be home at a certain time. Won't it upset her if you stay for two extra hours?)
"It usually takes around 20 minutes to get there."
"Normally, yeah, but what about traffic? It's rush hour." (We need to think about how traffic will affect our travel time in this case.)
"I've changed my mind."
"What about what we talked about yesterday? I thought we were clear on this." (Have you already forgotten our previous conversation? My understanding was that we had already made a concrete decision.)
"I think we should purchase new computers for the marketing department."
"That would be great, but what about the company budget? Can we afford 10 new computers?" (Have you considered the cost of the computers and how it would affect the company budget?)
"Let's leave now."
"But what about Rosa?"
"What about her?"
"Shouldn't we tell her we're leaving?"
As you can see, the second person always has some concerns about the proposed course of action. This is a very specific usage of "what about." "How about" is not used in these cases.
Practice: Imagine that your brother suggests having a party on the same day as your mother's birthday party. Use "What about" to remind your brother of the original party.
When to use "how about" and "what about" interchangeably
There are some situations where "how about" and "what about" can be used interchangeably.
1. When you want to ask someone to respond to something, usually to give their opinion
This is usually used in the question "What about you?" or "How about you?" However, you can also ask how other people who are not part of the conversation might feel about something. Note the two examples:
"I think this is a bad idea. What about you, Nadia?"
"I think this is a bad idea. How about you, Nadia?"
"That sounds good to me. What about Charlie? Do you think he would agree?"
"That sounds good to me. How about Charlie? Do you think he would agree?"
2. When you want to ask if something or someone is included
Another way to think of this usage is "_____, too?" You just want to know if someone or something is also supposed to be included in what is being discussed or proposed. Note the examples:
"Pack everything into that box."
"What about the jewelry? It looks fragile."
"How about the jewelry? It looks fragile."
"We're all going to the mall."
"What about Walter?"
"How about Walter?"
3. When you want to suggest a possible course of action (with some notes and one exception)
Near the beginning of this post, I mentioned that we would discuss using "what about" for making suggestions a little later. Well, the time has arrived. While I recommend that you use "how about" for making suggestions due to its greater flexibility, you can also use "what about" in many of the same situations. Take a look at these examples and the structures they use:
"We haven't heard from them in two days. Any suggestions?"
"What about sending them another email?"
"I need someone to go to the store to buy some potatoes."
"What about Adriana?"
You can substitute "what about" with "how about" in both of these situations.
Practice: Imagine someone is asking for a good movie, book, or TV series suggestion. Suggest something with "how about" or "what about."
Is there any difference when making suggestions?
There are some slight differences between "how about" and "what about" when you are making suggestions. Use "how about" when you feel much more optimistic and confident about your suggestion, and "what about" when you feel a little less certain and more open to hearing alternatives. For example, in response to the second situation above, if I say "How about Adriana?" instead of "What about Adriana?", I feel quite confident that Adriana is available and would be willing to go to the store to buy potatoes. For more on this conversation, check out the discussion on English Stack Exchange, a valuable resource for the linguistically curious.
Finally, I strongly discourage English learners from using the following structure with "what about":
"What about you leave early?"
This sounds very strange and messy to my ears. "How about you leave early?" sounds much more natural. If you really want to use "What" in this case, "What if you leave early?" or "What if you left early?" would both be better and grammatically acceptable. Unfortunately, this is not an area that is covered in most dictionaries or reputable online sources, which state that "how about" and "what about" can be used interchangeably to make suggestions. Yes, they can be! But not in the structure I've mentioned here.
To keep things simple, follow "how about" and "what about" with a verb+ing or with a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase if you want to make suggestions. You can also use "how about" with a subject + present simple verb. I hope this makes things a little clearer!
Seeing everything in action
To end this blog post, I would like to provide you with some more examples that show you a mix of everything we have discussed. I hope you find these contexts useful. See if you can identify the usages. Not sure about one of them? Scroll up and review the explanations.
"How about we see a movie on Friday night?"
"That sounds great, but what about the kids? We would need to find a babysitter."
"How about your parents?" / "What about your parents?"
"Studying is boring. I want to do something else." "How about we drive downtown?"
"Studying is boring. I want to drive downtown." "What about our physics test tomorrow?"
"How about a game of Settlers of Catan?"
"What about Bob?"
"What about him?"
"He doesn't really like that game."
I hope this has made things clearer for you. If you have any questions, I encourage you to leave them in the comments section below. And if you enjoyed reading this blog post, you might also enjoy my book, 300 Practical English Words and Phrases. It has only high-frequency language, over 2,000 examples, and conversation practice questions like the ones you have practiced with in this post. Take a look, and take your conversation to the next level.
Until next time, thanks for reading, and I wish you success in your studies.