When entertaining a young child who is learning English, I heard some people asking her

What is it?

when pointing to her finger.

I was surprised because I always learned to ask

What is this?

when pointing something (or that is there is a need to differentiate the distance, or in general separate the items).

Their rationale was that the answer will be "it is a finger".

Is the question "what is it?" correct when pointing something?

Bonus question: is there a (ideally - strict) grammatical rule for this case?

Note: I hoped another question would be a duplicate but the context is different (though it implies that there is no problem with "What is it?")

  • 2
    The physical gesture of pointing itself conveys the meaning of the word this. The physical gesture in combination with this reinforces the meaning. Pointing + it is not ungrammatical.
    – TimR
    Jun 5, 2018 at 21:01
  • Using this implies proximity. In such situations, using it is unnatural.
    – user3169
    Jun 6, 2018 at 0:15

1 Answer 1


Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule for your example.

What is it?

can be used for all situations. As pointed out

What is this?

may imply something which is closer, but may not. In a situation with something mysterious coming down a road towards you, you might use

What is that?
What is this?
What is it?

and all three would be correct. The nuance might be that "What is this?" might sound more curious than "What is that?" which may sound repulsive. "What is it?" could be used either way depending on intonation.

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