English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I recently heard an American presenter using the phrase "discover what it is that is important to you."

What is the linguistic difference between saying "what it is that is," rather than "what is"?

share|improve this question
up vote 6 down vote accepted

The what it is that is phrasing implies that we've already established that "it" exists and now we want to determine its nature. The what is phrasing leaves open the possibility that "it" equals nothing.

...Or it could just be a case of the presenter using more words than absolutely necessary, either on purpose (because he thinks it makes him sound smarter), or as subconscious verbal filler as he tries to gather his thoughts.

share|improve this answer

They mean the same thing.

In spoken English, the longer phrase could have the implication of focusing in more tightly on what, exactly is the problem; and the shorter one could be slightly more general--but this would be based on context and emphasis.

share|improve this answer
Exactly. I think "what it is that is" is just the presenter's way of emphasising "what is". He could have gone even further and said he wanted to discover exactly what it is that is important. Just background hum from someone either trying to draw you in, or needing time to collect his thoughts. – FumbleFingers Jul 7 '11 at 0:04
Or it could be someone trying to sound more important by using moar words. – Neil Fein Jul 7 '11 at 0:06
Or trying to get richer. Writers sometimes get paid by the word. Why not presenters? – FumbleFingers Jul 7 '11 at 0:17
To my ear, it's about specificity. This is a call to action, to find your passion and pursue it. The shorter version has the same "meaning" in the meta sense, but it can just as easily be answered by a long and fuzzy list of things that are of only marginal importance. – bye Jul 7 '11 at 3:28

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

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