Brad: What is it you want, Victoria? I have just found another object, a greater one. (1)

Brad: What do you want, Victoria? I have just found another object, a greater one. (2)

Victoria: Brad, come on, it is not a greater one to allow oneself to be more happy.


What do you want?


What is it you want?

both grammatical?

If so, which one one should prefer in the context above? Also, is there a difference in empahasis?

  • 1
    If the dialog is about goals in life, try seek rather than want. Also, the sentence that contains “it is not a greater one to” is quite unnatural. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Sep 29 '13 at 17:03
  • @jwpat7, should I say 'it is not a greater object to', perhaps? – user2793 Sep 29 '13 at 17:12

What is it [that] you want is grammatical. It's slightly more formal-sounding (in my opinion) which creates a slightly greater sense of psychological distance between the speaker and listener. Both versions are fine, though I think what do you want is more usual.

  • 2
    I'll agree with you that they're both grammatical, but I don't think either is particularly polite. Of course, from the context, I don't know whether politeness is what the OP wants. – Peter Shor Sep 29 '13 at 14:40
  • 2
    It didn't sound like the OP wanted polite. It looks like they're writing dialogue. – snailboat Sep 29 '13 at 14:54
  • I'm not a native speaker, but I find "what's it that you want" more to the impolite side. Maybe because I hear it a lot in arguments! – learner Nov 21 '13 at 8:40

Both sound grammatical to me, but "What is it you want?" is more forceful. For example, a child keeps distracting you and you snap: "What is it you want?"

On the other hand, "Brad, come on, it is not a greater one to allow oneself to be more happy." is not very grammatical!

  • I'd say the opposite, actually. "What do you want?" could easily be snapping, but "What is it you want?" could be said in a caring tone of voice and not be forceful at all. – starsplusplus Apr 24 '14 at 9:24

Both sentences are grammatical; the difference between the two is in what the speaker's feelings are about Victoria's wants.

What    do you     want, Victoria?
What   is it you   want, Victoria?

"What do you want?" is emotionally neutral.

"What is it you want" uses 'it' to indicate that Victoria's want (it) is separate from Victoria.

The two sentence variations have similar but not the exact same meaning. The first refers to Victoria's want as a property of Victoria; in this case an emotion that is part of Victoria. The second refers to Victoria's want as something separate from Victoria but which Victoria possesses; it implies that her emotion is not a property of Victoria but rather something she possesses as though she were carrying the emotion around in her pocket.

Disassociating a property of a person from that person is sometimes used as a method of convincing a listener that the property is not really part of their nature; often as a way of getting the listener to remove that property from themselves. In the example sentences, the use of "what is it you want" implies that the speaker is hostile to Victoria's want and wishes her to stop feeling that way, while "what do you want" is more neutral; the speaker is not indicating how he feels about Victoria's want.

In normal English usage asking someone what they want at the start of a conversation implies that the speaker is being interrupted and so is less than polite. Using 'what do you want' as part of an ongoing conversation does not imply an interruption and so is less impolite.


"What do you want?" is a somewhat "normal" form of address. However, this is a little blunt: if you want to be more polite you should say "What would you like?" Now if someone beats around the bush you can say "What is it that you want?", as in a questioning in which a detective asks many questions without really saying what he's got in mind: "All right, detective, what is it that you want?"

protected by Community Apr 4 '17 at 19:52

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