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What is the difference between these two sentences, if there is one?

"What is inside the box?" and "What is there inside the box?"

A native speaker once told me they are the same, but the former is grammatically more correct. But I've come across the latter in some grammar books.

To clarify my question, I'd like to put it this way: What is are the best questions for these statments? "There is a toy in the box" and "The toy is in the box"? I was thinking they would be: "What is there inside the box? -There is a toy in the box." and "What is inside the box? -The toy is inside the box."

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    Your native speaker who said one is more grammatically correct is right, but uses the wrong terminology. Both are completely grammatical, but the former is more idiomatic, which is what (s)he was talking about, I'm sure. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 13 '15 at 7:20
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    Your ""What is inside the box? The toy is inside the box." would usually be: "What is inside the box? A toy is inside the box." when that toy is new to the discourse. – F.E. Jun 13 '15 at 7:27
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    Notice that the difference in your interrogative clauses "What is inside the box?" and "What is there inside the box?" is related to the difference in their declarative versions: "X is inside the box." and "There is X inside the box." – F.E. Jun 13 '15 at 7:32
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I won't say that "What is there inside the box?" is ungrammatical but it's not what I would say.

I would say "What's inside the box?" every time. (AmE)

The two are synonymous, with the longer of the two being a bit more emphatic or even poetic. I may be misinterpreting your question but the way I would tend to hear it is:

What is there, inside the box?

In this case, "inside the box" is modifying "there"... as in "What do you have there, inside the box?"

As to your two statements:

There is a toy in the box.

This statement could be the response to either of the two questions, as they mean essentially the same thing.

The toy is in the box.

My first thought, if you asked me to come up with a question to go with this statement, is:

Where is the toy?

  • Interestingly, if the subject is the antecedent of a relative (or infinitival) clause, we are much, much more likely to use there; cf. “What is in the box?” vs. “What is there in the box that makes you so afraid?”. Or indeed when we're talking about something indefinite: “What is there inside a computer screen?” – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 13 '15 at 7:25
  • @JanusBahsJacquet And I would say that "in the box" in your example could even be set apart as a sort of appositive : "What is there, in the box, that makes you so afraid?" – Catija Jun 13 '15 at 7:29
  • I can't recall ever encountering "what is there, inside the box?" In that construction "there" = "inside the box"; I have, however, encountered "Is there something/anything inside the box?", and the reply, "There is a toy inside the box." – user98990 Jun 13 '15 at 20:11

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