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We say:

What is there in the box?
There is a watch in the box.

Can we also say:

What is it in the box?
It's a watch in the box.

I think they don't have the same meaning, but does the latter sound grammatical?

To me, it more sounds like you've seen the thing in the box and say it to mean "What is that thing in the box?"

4 Answers 4

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What's in the box?
Tell me what, if anything, is inside the box.

What is it in the box?
That thing in the box -- tell me what it is.

The speaker of the latter may be a smidgen more confident that there's something in the box, that it isn't an empty box.

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  • What about the answer to each question? "What's in the box? - A CD is in the box. Or -There is a CD in the box."? Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 14:18
  • And "What is it in the box? - It is a CD. Or -There is a CD."? Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 14:19
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    @Cheiloproclitic: There's a CD in the box. A CD's in the box. It's a CD. We probably wouldn't say "It's a CD in the box". To my ear "it's" and "in the box" go together woodenly. Why not create a separate question and see what other native speakers have to say about that: "There's a CD in the box" versus "It's a CD in the box".
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 14:52
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    @TRomano - +1 for "woodenly." There is a CD in the box seems more like a sentence found in an elementary primer than in an adult conversation.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 15:32
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You missed the most obvious one: What is in the box? Or, if you are pointing to an item in an open box, then: What's that thing in the box?

As for your comment under Peter's answer, which asks:

So do "What's in the box?" and "What is it in the box?" have exactly the same meaning?

The don't really mean anything different; they are both valid, grammatical ways to inquire about the contents of a box. But they might be used in different situations (or contexts).

For example, If I can't see what's in the box, I'm more likely to ask: "What's in the box?" On the other hand, if I can see what's in the box but I can't recognize what it is, then I might as, "What's that thing in the box?" (or, if I'm pointing at it, I there's a good chance I won't mention the box at all: "What is that thing?")

So, there's no single way to ask a question like this:

enter image description here What's in the box?


What are those things in the box?enter image description here


enter image description here
What kind of animal in the box?
(or, maybe, if can tell it's a cat: Why is that cat in my box?)

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  • What's that thing inside the box? Would usually be said with an emphasis on thing and a sense of foreboding or disgust
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 23:17
  • @Peter: or surprise or curiosity.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 0:26
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What is it in the box?
What is it (that you have) in the box?
What is it there in the box.

Is perfectly acceptable and understandable that your asking about the contents of the box.

A native speaker would simply say:

What's in the box?

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  • So you mean "What's in the box?" and "What is it in the box?" Have exactly the same meaning? Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 8:46
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    To a native speaker it will be understood they mean the same thing: What is it that is inside the box?
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 23:14
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I think, it differs on what and why are you asking:

What is there in the box?

It is just neutral question targeted at the box. It could continue such way:

There is a cheese and bread and some vegetables

And what is there on the table?

There are apples and grapes and other fruits

Good, put everything from table to the box too and we can go

(See, these questions are about what is where, directed at places and these answers are not very specific about those items there.)

On the other hand the next question is not about box but about the particular one thing inside it

What is it in the box?

Those are my socks

Why, in the hell, are your stupid and disgusting socks in my pretty box? How many times I told you to put them somewhere else?

I am so sorry ...

And the short version is even less specific

What's in the box?

Nothing much, just some garbage

So put it there in the corner and bring another one from the car

(and both "box" and "garbage" are forgotten in the same moment)

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