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?
  • Not sure if it's a typo, but you'd say "a UK national" not "an UK national". – stackUnderflow Apr 6 '14 at 17:07

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.

  • 2
    +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. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 20 '13 at 12:44
  • @StoneyB Ah, good point! That does sound better. – snailplane Feb 20 '13 at 12:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.