In American English, can we say either of these sentences interchangeably?

The sound of what is this?

This is the sound of what?

Context: Imagine I heard a sound at home which sounds like it is coming from a device in the kitchen, and I am wondering the sound of what device it is.

My opinion: I think either of these sentences can be used interchangeably. But the second sentence I gave has more of an informal structure I guess.

Note: I am asking this question of Americans because I've been learning American English and there can be a lot of differences between American and British English. No offense to British English. :)


Normal conversational language would be "What is making this sound?"

Your second example, "This is the sound of what?" is something you might find on an exam or game show question, but not in common usage.

Your first sentence, "The sound of what is this?", would only be uttered by Yoda.

  • 1
    Actually, I think Yoda would say, The sound of what, this is. And it wouldn't be an actual question. ;) – Jason Bassford Aug 5 '18 at 22:04
  • @fixer1234 Thank you. So, can't we ever use this "The xxx of what" or "A xxx of what" structure for asking questions? For example, the possessive version of "who" is "whose" (for example when you hear a person's voice, you can say "whose voice is that"), but there is no possessive version of "what". If we can't say "The xxx of what is...", what is the alternative? What about the sentence "What does this sound belong to?"? – Fire and Ice Aug 5 '18 at 22:13
  • "what does this sound belong to" is grammatically correct, but not correct in meaning. Sound doesn't belong to something in the sense of possession, it's associated with something that makes it. You wouldn't ask, "What owns this sound?" It would be "What makes this sound?" – fixer1234 Aug 5 '18 at 22:21
  • @fixer1234 Thanks again. You said that "This is the sound of what?" was not found in common usage. But I can hear Americans use the structure in that question actually: "This is the/an xxx of what?" Don't you really think that structure is ever used in colloquial language? – Fire and Ice Aug 5 '18 at 22:31
  • No, except in the manner Jason describes. Perhaps it's more common in British English. It may be that it's more technically correct formal grammar. Exam and game show questions are proofread to ensure that they can't be criticized for violating English rules, or interpreted in some other way, so that may explain why they are often worded that way. But it isn't used in conversational language and would stand out as odd if someone did. – fixer1234 Aug 5 '18 at 22:48

The first sentence is ungrammatical.

The second sentence is awkward without further context, such as the following:

"Say that again? This is the sound of what?"

A more common way of phrasing such a question would be something different:

What's making that sound?

Note that it wouldn't normally sound right to ask about this sound. It would more often be phrased that sound. If you're talking about this, you're typically talking about something close to you in location or concept. If it's an unidentified sound, it would be that.

  • Not clear why this got a downvote. Your observation on the second sentence is good, and "this" vs. "that" is a good catch. I'd add, though, that it could be "this" if, for example, several people are listening intently to a recording trying to determine what it is. If the sound is remote, you're right that "that" would be used. – fixer1234 Aug 5 '18 at 22:27
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    @fixer1234 I thought of that scenario. I think it depends on the particular context. Somebody plays back a recording on a phone they are holding in their hand. "Okay, folks. I've heard this strange sound and I'm not sure what it is. I'm going to play it for you. There, did you hear that? what was that?" :) – Jason Bassford Aug 5 '18 at 22:35


In AmE, we would not ask the question in the first way, The sound of what is this? We would say

What's this the sound of?

We could also ask:

This is the sound of what?

if we were about to play a sound recording, say. If we had just played the recording, we might ask:

That was the sound of what?


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