1. What is it that makes people happy?
  2. Whatever makes people happy?

Do these two sentences both mean the same thing?

Are both sentences correct grammatically?

  • This question doesn't show what you already know or have found. For example have you used a dictionary, or googled the phrases. Please see the tour and the help center to
    – James K
    Jun 29, 2018 at 16:34

2 Answers 2


"Whatever" is not usually the subject of a question. In non-grammatical terms, it's generally used as a variable in a more declarative sense. For example: Whatever you decide, I will support you.

Instead, I think you meant, What makes people happy? That would be the equivalent of your first sentence, which is fine.

[ETA] "Whatever" does occasionally start a question, usually in the form of, Whatever happened to...? and implying that something has been missing or forgotten for a long time. There are a few other instances, but they are not very common and thus not worth getting into here. Suffice it to say that if you are ever unsure of whether to start a question with Whatever or What, you will rarely go wrong with What.

  • 2
    I think your first sentence is true, but I would just flag up that Whatever do you mean? is a perfectly idiomatic / emphatic alternative to both What do you mean? and What is it that you mean? It may be just my opinion, but I feel that Whatever made you do that? nearly always implies the asker is more concerned with registering his low opinion of your reason for doing something than with actually knowing what that reason might be. Effectively, it's often almost a rhetorical question (I don't care why you did it - it's a daft thing to do). Jun 29, 2018 at 15:29

Outside of any other context, Whatever makes people happy? is not a grammatical question.

It might be grammatical in this exchange:

"Whatever makes people happy should be done."
"Whatever makes people happy? What do you mean?"

But note that I've styled it so it's obvious the question is referring to the phrase itself.

What is it that makes people happy? is fine.

You also implied a second question by using an equal sign.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the second question were grammatical, would the two questions mean the same thing? No.

What is it that makes people happy?

The use of the definite article suggests that there is only a single thing that leads to happiness.

Whatever makes people happy?

The answer to whatever can be any number of things, so there could be one or many things that lead to happiness.

In order to make the two questions equivalent (again, ignoring the ungrammatical nature of the second question), this would be a better comparison:

What makes people happy?
Whatever makes people happy?

Alternatively, you could keep the use of the definite article in the first question, change the wording of the second so it is grammatical, and end up with two questions that do have an equivalent meaning:

What is it that makes people happy?
Whatever is it that makes people happy?

This site is temporarily in read-only mode and not accepting new answers.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .