8

Can anyone give a cogent, simply described explanation of why the verb BE in:

  • What is it?

... doesn't seem to be able to be contracted with the subject:

  • What's it? *

Compare the sentences above with:

  • What's this?
  • What's that?

These are perfectly fine. In fact, the contractions here should be expected in almost all examples of spoken English.

Bounty edit note: Any answer with any references to authoritative vetted sources will be strongly favoured.

  • 1
    Though the question is entirely different, I would say that this answer of mine also adequately answers this question—assuming you accept that it in this function is inherently unstressed and cannot populate the mandatory predicate stress slot (unlike this, and also it in some other cases, like “That’s it!” or even “What’s ‘it’?”). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 9 '14 at 23:39
  • 1
    I don't think the rules that govern sentential stress slots really care whether what is subject or predicate on a deeper syntactic level—there's simply a ‘subject slot’ and a ‘predicate slot’, and the cutoff point between them is the verb (which is included in the latter). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 9 '14 at 23:53
  • 2
    @JanusBahsJacquet Do the same test trying to contract a three syllable sentence beginning with Who is into Who’s, and you find something interesting. Normally Who’s it? is blocked, although Who’s it for? is not because the sentence now ends with a stressed word. However, if you are playing “Tag! You’re It!” then suddenly it’s allowed, since it has become a noun more than a pronoun, and so becomes stressed and valid. You can say “Who’s it?” in that context. Because possessive pronouns are stressed but but not possessive determiners, some resist ending the sentence with the p.p. its. – tchrist Sep 10 '14 at 0:51
  • 1
    It's not contracted because it's final; final be doesn't contract: *I said that it isn't but he said that it's. This and that are stressed after is, but it normally isn't, so that makes it sound weird uncontracted, too. – John Lawler Sep 10 '14 at 2:11
  • 2
    In Araucaria's example "I think it is sometimes", the "sometimes" is a sentence modifier that is not part of the verb phrase "it is". The last thing in the verb phrase has to be stressed. On the other hand, the "sometimes" is in the verb phrase when it is positioned between the verb and an element of the verb phrase, as in "I think it is sometimes open". That's why the former "is" cannot be contracted, but the latter one can be. – Greg Lee Oct 4 '15 at 16:34
16
+200

(1) The word "it" doesn't like to be stressed. (2) Normally, a sentence has its strongest stress on the last thing that can be stressed, which in a simple subject-verb-object sentence will the object, since that is the last thing.

Principles (1) and (2) interact to give the strongest stress on the verb of a sentence, in case the object is "it" -- since the stress can't go on the "it", the last eligible thing for stress is the verb. Compare "I like yoghurt" with "I like it".

(3) Stressed vowels cannot be deleted.

Putting together (1-3), we deduce that the "is" in "What is it?" will be stressed, and consequently cannot be contracted to *"What's it?", because that would require deleting the "i" of "is", which must be stressed because of the following "it".

  • How do you account for the contractability of "Who's it?" (commonly encountered, for example, in the game of tag)? – JEL Oct 5 '15 at 23:21
  • 1
    The rule that "it" is not stressed concerns the pronoun "it". The "it" in the game of "it" is not a pronoun, so it gets stress, and consequently preceding "is" can be contracted. – Greg Lee Oct 5 '15 at 23:28
  • 2
    @JEL, Araucaria, When I wrote my answer, it just didn't occur to me that I should formulate it with "the pronoun 'it'". I noticed after JEL brought it up. – Greg Lee Oct 6 '15 at 11:26
  • 1
    @GregLee I guess a lot of that's also because I was trained by phoneticians and not phonologists. I'm more from a Wells background, less from a generative one ... – Araucaria Oct 7 '15 at 23:31
  • 1
    Phoneticians taught you to appeal to derivations? I didn't think phoneticians even knew about derivations, or if they did, certainly didn't believe in them. – Greg Lee Oct 8 '15 at 0:37
9

It's a perfectly grammatical contraction, though it doesn't commonly stand alone; it's usually followed by another word.

  • What's it all about, Alfie?
  • What's It? - The Award Winning Game Where Creative Minds Think Alike!
  • Sun, sea and silver service: what’s it like crewing on a superyacht?
  • What's It? - Information Today
  • What's It Like on the Pope's Plane?
  • What's it to you, anyway?
  • *What's it do?"

The problem with your example is that in the short, stand alone phrase "What is it?" (just as with Who is it?), the emphasis is on is, not what. If there is no emphasis on is, then the phrase is simply What? If the emphasis is on it, then something for the dummy-it must be stated, as in the cases above, or, What's it like outside? (Who's it gonna be?)

edited to add: Please see @John Lawler's comment.

  • It's certainly helpful! :) One of my problems is that the necessary strong - ie not-contracted - form of is is the exceptional bit. As you show, when there are following complements or adjuncts, BE, of course, is always contractible. I'm not sure about the Information Today title, not because it's not a proper title, but because I'm not sure that What's it can be used in real speech as a question in so-called "standard English". Also why obligatory emphasis on is in what is it?, but not in What's that? – Araucaria Sep 10 '14 at 0:03
  • 3
    I think this answers something that is slightly, but crucially, different from the question. When you add more elements to the sentence, you change the basis for stress assignment and thereby also contraction, so though there are many instances of “what’s it […]”, those all end up being incomparable to the ‘simplex’ sentence “*What’s it?”. Now the game show and the Information Today titles, those are very interesting, because they actually do use something that isn't valid as a natural sentence. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 10 '14 at 0:06
  • 1
    It also reminds me that nouns derived from similar phrases seemingly always have contracted forms: whatsit, whatchamacallit, etc. Most of them have additional elements, so contractions aren't that odd, but whatsit doesn't. You'd really expect that to be called a whaddisit or something. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 10 '14 at 0:09
  • 2
    How quickly we forget the childhood game of Tag! Tag, you’re it! Who’s it? I’m it! – tchrist Sep 10 '14 at 1:06
  • 1
    What's it do? is not ungrammatical; it's the contraction for What does it do? The -'s (really a /z/, but devoiced to /s/ after /t/ from What) can stand for is or does (though not was, the same way -'d can stand for could or did); What's he do? is short for What does he do? – John Lawler Oct 5 '15 at 19:34
2

What is it?
What's this?
What's that?

Why are people so averse to providing context? English lives and breathes through context.

The proper way to approach this is to ask how the expressions are used, not to examine them as isolated phrases that can be poked at and dissected without any reference to real-life usage.

Example

(a) Jane points at an object lying on the table. She says, "What's that?"

The word 'that' is strongly stressed. We understand that something new has come to Jane's attention. The something is that. The verb 'is' cannot take a position of stress because that is already occupied.

(b) Jane points at an object lying on the table. She says

"What is that?"

This time, the word 'is' is strongly stressed. Jane is talking about something that is already under scrutiny by those present but now she is saying, "I see it but now I want to know what it is" Clearly we can't abbreviate 'is' in this case.

Now all we have to do is apply the same reasoning to 'it'.

(c) Someone hands an object to Jane, she enquires, "What is it?" This is similar to case (b). There is a known object and Jane wants some information about it.

(d) Now we come to the 'impossible' case. There is an object.

Jane says, "What's it?"

This should be like case (a). That is to say, the object is new to Jane. However a vital property of the word 'it' is that it must have an antecedent. Therefore Jane must already have mentioned it. So it can't be like case (a). This case doesn't happen because there can never be a context that warrants it.

Conclusion

You can only understand the reason by considering the contexts in which the expressions can be used. You cannot do it by simply reasoning about the isolated phrase—English requires context.

Unlike for 'this' and 'that', there is simply no context that allows emphasis on the word 'it'.

  • 2
    It is not actually a "vital property" of the word "it" that it have an antecedent. For instance, the "it" at the beginning of the sentence preceding this one. For another example, take "It's raining". – Greg Lee Oct 9 '15 at 3:24
  • @GregLee - That's a very good observation. In fact, it blows the whole thing apart. I'll amend my answer. – chasly from UK Oct 9 '15 at 7:36
  • Jane's "What's it?" is a nominal (or noumenal, you choose) use of 'it' with reference to the 'it' in John's "It's raining". Try this: "At the other end, the phone rang three times, and then a woman's voice said "Yeah, what's it?". – JEL Oct 9 '15 at 8:02
  • @JEL - Good points. With regard to the phone scenario - there's a deletion. The woman is effectively saying, "You rang me about something. What is it?" – chasly from UK Oct 9 '15 at 8:04
  • @JEL - You're right about the nominal. I'm going to have to revert to my older answer. The impersonal 'it' in expressions like 'It's raining', is being used in a different way to the normal 'it' that requires an antecedent. Suppose you'd never seen rain before: You would not point at rain and say "What's it?" because the idiom in English is to point and say, "What's that?" If we didn't have demonstrative pronouns in English then maybe we would say, "What's it?" – chasly from UK Oct 9 '15 at 8:15

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.