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  • Why is it that everybody wants to help me whenever I need someone's help?
  • Why does everybody want to help me whenever I need someone's help?

Can you please explain to me the difference in meaning between these two questions? I don't see it.

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You have to be more careful with the negative of the first question because it is more convoluted: I think "Why isn't it that everybody wants to help me?" would be wrong while "Why doesn't everybody want to help me?" is fine. –  Henry Apr 18 '11 at 11:27
    
@Henry - Actually, I don't see any meaning in "Why isn't it that everybody wants to help me?" Would that be a valid question in some particular circumstances? What would it mean then? –  brilliant Apr 18 '11 at 11:36
    
“Professor, my Fry-fro is all frizzy! And my body is covered in burns!” “Yeah, so? What of it?” “Well, why… is… those things?” –  Josh Lee Apr 18 '11 at 14:04
    
You're right, that is not a form of question that one would ever use - one would say "Why is it that nobody (or not everybody) wants to help me?" –  psmears Apr 18 '11 at 17:10
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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I see a subtle difference, which might be more obvious to anyone into Systems Thinking or NLP.

The first has a more passive meaning, in that it implies that a cause exists for everybody's desire to help, without specifying where that cause exists. The second implies that the cause lies with everybody.

You can see this more clearly if you use an example with something inanimate in it:

  • Why is that the ball always comes through my window?
  • Why does the ball always come through my window?

The ball doesn't come through the window of its own accord, of course. We would normally say something like, "Why do the kids next door always hit the ball through my window?" instead, because to assign the action to the ball, rather than the people hitting it, would be strange.

We might use "Why is it that...?" more often when the cause of an event is unclear. It can also help us look outside the immediate cause for external influences:

  • Why do sparrows always fly into my window? (Stupid birds).

  • Why is it that sparrows always fly into my window? (Because they can't see the glass).

Thank you for making me aware of this. Another linguistic Systems Thinking tool to add to my box.

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@Lunivore - WOW!!! Thank you for this answer. I think the difference that you have pointed out IS there. May I ask you, what is Systems Thinking or NLP? Where can I find more about it? –  brilliant Apr 18 '11 at 14:26
    
Systems Thinking is the art of considering whole systems of events and interactions rather than simple causal relationships. I recommend Gerald Weinberg's "Introduction to Systems Thinking" (available cheap on the Kindle or expensively 2nd hand) or Peter M. Senge's "The Fifth Discipline". NLP is Neuro Linguistic Programming, about how words and body language affect the models in our minds. I recommend "Introduction to NLP" by Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour, or "NLP in 21 days", Harry Alder and Beryl Heather. Also check out Wikipedia. Have fun learning more! –  Lunivore Apr 18 '11 at 15:46
    
This is about as far off-topic as I want to go, but it really must be offered in counterpoint to Lunivore's praise that NLP is in fact pseudoscience. –  Uticensis Apr 18 '11 at 16:30
    
It's just a model (or a set of models). Works surprisingly well, for me, and I'm making a lot of cash from it. Can you see from the above how using different words could help you look outside the box a bit more? If so, that's all NLP is, really. –  Lunivore Apr 18 '11 at 19:45
    
@Lunivore - Thank you. I'll be sure to get those books and read them. –  brilliant Apr 18 '11 at 19:52
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I think there is no difference except that the first sounds more emphasized. But there is no difference in meaning.

They are both asking for the reasons, although in a slightly different way.

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There are many stylistic variants you can use to ask why something happens. They all mean pretty much the same thing; you just have to choose the particular flavor you're looking for at the time of writing.

Here are a few:

Why ...?

Why is it that ... ?

Why does it happen that ...?

How does it happen that ...?

How come ...?

How can it be that ...?

What kind of a world is it where ...?

There are more, but you get the idea. Sometimes we use variants to freshen up our writing, or avoid variance to hammer home a repetitive point. If you are asking many similar questions of this type in a row, you may repeat the same construction (anaphora). But usually you're not wielding a rhetorical jackhammer, so variation is the way to go to keep your prose from getting dull.

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Thanks. I am sure all these phrases can be used interchangeably to make the speech sound more varied, although some small "cues" of meaning could also be elicited (just like Lunivore has pointed out). I may be wrong of course, but "how come..." strikes me more as relating to a reason why one particular event has taken place, while "why is it that..." tends, as I think, to question more about some repetitive actions. –  brilliant Apr 18 '11 at 14:34
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@brilliant: How come people always say things like that to me? –  Robusto Apr 18 '11 at 14:35
    
As I said, I may be wrong. Perhaps, "how come" implies more of a surprise and is more emotional than "why is it that..." –  brilliant Apr 18 '11 at 14:40
    
@brilliant: Interesting. How come you think that? Not trying to be flippant here, but "How come ..." is just another way of asking "why" in English. Alex: "I have to get going." Bob: "How come?" –  Robusto Apr 18 '11 at 14:49
    
I don't know why, but it seems to me that Bob would sound a bit strange if he said, "Why is it that you have to get going?" in that situation. –  brilliant Apr 18 '11 at 14:52
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