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I can't wrap my head about the difference between the two phrases below. A friend of mine, an U.K. national, told me that both are grammatical, but being not a linguist, she can't explain why.

A context is when someone is telling about having fun last holiday, concluding their speech with a phrase (1). To my understanding, only phrase (2) is correct, while (1) sounds like an awkward contraction.

  1. If it is not a great holiday, then what is?
  2. If it is not a great holiday, then what is it?
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  • Not sure if it's a typo, but you'd say "a UK national" not "an UK national". Apr 6, 2014 at 17:07

1 Answer 1

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Both sentences sound fine to me, but I'd read them with different emphasis and meaning:

  1. If it's not a great holiday, then what is (a great holiday)?
  2. If it's not a great holiday, then what is it?

The first sentence is a rhetorical device. The implication is that if you don't consider it a great holiday, then you probably shouldn't consider anything a great holiday--that's how good "it" is. In context, this is the better sentence. (Note that you'd never say the part I put in parentheses--I only added it to help explain.)

The second sentence is reacting in surprise. The speaker thought it was a great holiday, but now they're learning it's something else. They're asking what it is. But this possibility is strange in context, so I might assume the question is rhetorical; if used this way, they're declaring it to be a great holiday by asking what else it could be.

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    +1 But in the first sentence it's would be unlikely - it just won't usually bear that much stress. We'd say If this isn't or If that isn't. Feb 20, 2013 at 12:44
  • @StoneyB Ah, good point! That does sound better.
    – user230
    Feb 20, 2013 at 12:52

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