4

I am going to die.

  • For what?
  • What for?

What is the difference between "For what?" and "What for?" in this context?

  • Could you write a sentence using each one? – user3169 May 8 '14 at 4:33
  • 1
    @user3169- I believe those are the complete sentences (questions) that OP has in mind. There's no difference in here, just question inversion. Consider "For what [are you going to die]?" vs "What [are you going to die] for?" – Jim May 8 '14 at 6:50
  • Both of them essentially mean, "For what reason?" – J.R. May 9 '14 at 1:48
4

The only difference would be that some people insist that you should not end a sentence with a preposition. (This has been asked both at ELU and here on ELL.)

Those people would consider the sentence "What are you going to die for" wrong.

However, it is very common and widely accepted to end a sentence with a preposition, so both sentences are fine. Just be aware there will be people who consider the "for what" as "better".

3

There are many cases where these questions are not actually interchangeable.

Example:

I'm prepared to die for it if necessary.

What for?

Here "What for?" means something like "Why would you want to do that?" It can actually be quite rude if the reason has already been provided or is already understood by the person asking the question.

I'm prepared to die for it if necessary.

For what?

Here "For what?" is a lot more neutral. It simply means "What is it that you're prepared to die for; I don't understand/didn't catch it."

Similarly,

I'm going to sell it to you for three dollars.

What for? (= Why would you want to do that?)

vs.

I'm going to sell it to you for three dollars.

For what? (=For how much money?! can be skeptical, might not have heard, etc.)

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