I want to explain to the Spanish developers of a website why this text label sounds wrong:

If your column isn't country data, where's it?

IMHO, you have to say "Where is it?" - but I don't know why.


For context, the meaning of "where's it" here is "in which country are the regions represented by the data in your column?"

And to be clearer, I'm not asking about when it's ok to use contractions in semi-formal English. To my (native Australian) ear, "Where's it?" sounds wrong in any context. Not "informal", but wrong.


There is a near-duplicate question What's this? What is it? but not What's it? - Why?. I think the difference between "what" and "where" is significant enough to not want to merge the two.

  • 8
    Who said you can't? It's a bit non-idiomatic, but perfectly "legal".
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 20, 2015 at 23:32
  • 17
    No, you can't. It sounds perfectly barbarous, and should be avoided.
    – Robusto
    Oct 20, 2015 at 23:42
  • 7
    But you can say Where's it gone? Puzzling.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 21, 2015 at 0:03
  • 5
    @Robusto - It is perfectly valid syntax. And there are circumstances where "Where's it?" might be said, in colloquial conversation. You are correct that it "sounds bad", though, and that is reason to avoid it.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 21, 2015 at 0:23
  • 5
    As a native British Eng speaker, the entire sentence is weird. If your column isn't country data .... er, what does the it refer back to, exactly? A column? A country? Some data? "Illogical, Captain..."
    – alephzero
    Oct 21, 2015 at 4:42

9 Answers 9


Because the logical stress in that sentence falls on "is": Where IS it? If you abbreviate the stressed syllable, it results in nothing but nonsense.

  • 15
    It's not that the stress does fall on is, it's that it doesn't fall on it. Where's the cheese? is fine, as Matt Samuel says, and so is Where's it gone?
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 21, 2015 at 0:05
  • 7
    I don't even think there's a rule here. It's purely intuitive.
    – Ricky
    Oct 21, 2015 at 1:35
  • 17
    @nohat - So, where's Waldo?
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 21, 2015 at 2:08
  • 7
    @SteveBennett I don't think "Where's she?" is fine, it sounds wrong to me. Oct 21, 2015 at 4:06
  • 6
    @SteveBennett "Where's she?" sounds totally wrong to me (British English), even in your proposed context. It just sounds like half a sentence, and like there's more to come. Oct 21, 2015 at 14:02

The clitic 's meaning "is" can only be used to substitute for a "weak form" is (pronounced /əz/). The is in in "Where is it" is the "strong form" is (pronounced /ɪz/) since it is used as a main verb and not as a modal (or helping) verb. Therefore it cannot be replaced with the clitic 's.

See a related answer I wrote a while back discussing this restriction in my answer to Is there some rule against ending a sentence with the contraction “it's”?

  • 15
    So, where's Waldo?
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 21, 2015 at 2:09
  • 1
    @HotLicks I guess the restriction is mediated by the presence of "it", but I'll have to check my copy of CGEL when I get home.
    – nohat
    Oct 21, 2015 at 2:12
  • 2
    @nohat: I don't think the CGEL has anything useful to say on the subject; it just says that -'s for is is "interestingly restricted", with a few examples of cases that don't work (see pp. 1615-1616). None resembles the OP's. (And you might as well delete this answer in the meantime, since you've already established that it's wrong . . .)
    – ruakh
    Oct 21, 2015 at 4:10
  • Interesting answer and discussion. My first response to the "Where's Waldo?" counterpoint was that perhaps 's isn't restrictive with proper nouns. "Where's Timbuktu?". But then "Where's he he going with this?", "Where's that going to get us?", and of course, "Where's it all going to end?" Oct 21, 2015 at 6:09
  • I think it's something more than that though. Where's Oz? Oct 21, 2015 at 14:11

Generally speaking, I'm of the mind that technical writing should follow the same conventions as formal and academic writing, which is one reason to avoid the contraction. That being said, I think your intuition is that the sentence itself just "sounds wrong" -- and I would agree. The first part of the sentence refers to "being" (if your column is not country data), but the clause immediately after it refers to location (where is it) -- one clause doesn't follow the other (it is unclear how the type of data in the column is related to where it is).

For example, if the first clause is supposed to convey "If the unit of analysis for the data in this column is not a country", then the second clause should read "what is it [the unit of analysis]", not " where is it".

  • 4
    Yes! The problem with the sentence is greater than "where is" vs "where's". OTOH, some on the site seem to prefer a prescriptive approach to grammar over the defense of clarity :(
    – Taryn
    Oct 21, 2015 at 0:38
  • 1
    Sorry - I've added explanation of what the sentence means in this context. Oct 21, 2015 at 1:11
  • 2
    @SteveBennett well based on your edit, the sentence has bigger problems than an awkward contraction because it's asking "If your column isn't country data, in which country are the regions represented by the data in your column?". Do you see how the second part contradicts the first? (If the column ISN'T country data, then by definition it's not from ANY country). Oct 21, 2015 at 1:16
  • 2
    It's a somewhat complex interaction. The "column" of data contains regions names. If those regions are actually country names, stop here. If they're regions, then either there's another column which says which country each belongs to, or they all belong to one country. Quite hard to succinctly explain! Oct 21, 2015 at 1:18
  • 3
    @SteveBennett hmm in that case you've got bigger problems than grammar because the sentence doesn't ask the question that you are trying to ask. Reformulate it more clearly. Eg. "If the regions in this column are not countries, what country are they located in? (Or if they are located in more than one country, which column lists the corresponding locations?)" Oct 21, 2015 at 1:43

The repetitive-contrastive stress in the sentence produces stress on "is", which can't receive stress when it's a clitic ("A clitic is a morpheme that has syntactic characteristics of a word, but shows evidence of being phonologically bound to another word" and "The term clitic is used in traditional grammar for a word or particle that cannot bear accent or stress....") bound to "where".

If your column isn't country data, where is it?

Here, the stress on the most-important word (for the sense of the question), is, contrasts that word and its sense with the second-most important word, isn't, in the contingency:

If your column isn't country data, where is it?

In addition, when the negated verb (isn't) is re-introduced as a positive verb (is) in the wh-question, that "repetition serves discourse informational ... purposes [and] contrasts or emphasizes the whole [wh-question] ...." ("Sentence Stress in Information Structure", Kent Lee, 2013, p. 8).

My observations about the prosodic stress patterns required by the intended meaning of the quoted question don't satisfy the OQ entirely. In order to satisfy the OQ, the reasons "it", "where's", or another word shouldn't or aren't likely to receive stress would need to be explained and, for good measure, an account of why such phonological observations would apply to written English at all should at least be referenced.

About the last, why phonological observations would apply: I'm either going to palm that explanation off as 'general reference' in accordance with long-standing evasive tactics at EL&U, or I'm going to misrepresent that explanation as being complete and entire in the rationale that written English, especially written English drawing on informal phonological features such as clitics, derives all of its informational structure from spoken English.

The other, the reasons another word than is doesn't receive the stress, are at least partly explained by the reasons I've given that is does receive the stress. Briefly and in summary, my reasoning is that the accurate interpretation of the question quoted in the OQ depends on that pattern of underlying stress. Beyond that positive explanation, the reasons another word than is doesn't receive the stress are best summed up as artifacts of there being no other good candidate than is for both the sentence and the phrasal stress.


Successive edits of the OQ have put this answer somewhat out of step, yet I think it still might have some value as an answer to the original, unedited OQ.

  1. The title of the OQ was originally Why can't you say "Where's it?" not Why is "Where's it?" Grammatically incorrect? I responded to the original title, not the edited one. My response to the edited title, should I choose to make one, would summarily dismiss it: "Where's it?" is grammatically correct.
  2. The second edit ("Edit 2" in the OQ) implies, quite to the contrary of the poster's intent, that the OQ is a 'duplicate' (a 'duplicate', that is, in EL&U parlance, which parlance promotes a close similarity to duplication) of the suggested 'duplicate'. Accordingly, I have voted to close the question and removed any of my comments suggesting the OQ was not a 'duplicate'.
  • 1
    In asking a question, it's often necessary to identify a contrast with something that's known. "Bob and his wife were invited; SHE's here--where's HE" would contrast HE with SHE, thus providing something a strong reason to accent the predicate pronoun. Finding a good contrast for "IT" however can be rather difficult. Note that in the case of "Where's Waldo", the "reader" will have no difficulty ascertaining the whereabouts of hundreds of people--it's only Waldo that seems elusive.
    – supercat
    Oct 21, 2015 at 23:18
  • 2
    In defence of the OP the changing of the title was not his, it was an edit suggested by a low rep user and approved by two experienced users in the review queue. I agree that the title change is somewhat significant.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 22, 2015 at 0:03
  • 1
    I like this explanation... except that, if I were to read out the sentence "If your column isn't country data, where is it?" without any explicit emphasis markers suggesting otherwise, I'd tend to put the stress on "where" rather than on "is". Even so, for some reason, "where's it?" sounds wrong to me (even though, at least to my ear, it could work if the "it" was replaced by a longer phrase). Thus, I suspect that your explanation, while certainly illuminating, is not quite the whole story. Oct 23, 2015 at 10:21
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA If I had been the OP then I would have reverted that title change, because of how it completely alters the entire question, for the reasons given in JEL's answer!
    – ClickRick
    Oct 23, 2015 at 15:07

Hypothesis: Asking a question (audibly) essentially requires what is commonly referred to as a "rising tone" at the end of the sentence. "Where is it?" easily allows the rising tone on "it", satisfying this requirement. With "Where's it?" it is very difficult to apply the rising tone to "it", and hence the "questionness" of the sentence is not properly conveyed.

It's not entirely clear what attributes make adding the rising tone easy or hard, but if you say "Where's it?" and "Where's Ed?" to yourself I think most people (no doubt there will be a few disagreeing) will find that the rising tone is more easily and recognizably applied to the second.

The reason "Where's it?" "sounds bad" is that it doesn't/can't follow the rules for audible questions.

(There is also the point, of course, that "Where's it?" is so short and ends so abruptly, even when compared to "Where's Ed?", that the sentence is simply hard to recognize and parse in a conversational environment. But there are other situations where this is the case and they yet they don't "sound bad".)

  • Hypothesis: Asking a question (audibly) essentially requires what is commonly referred to as a "rising tone" at the end of the sentence. Are you sure about this?
    – biziclop
    Oct 21, 2015 at 13:57
  • @biziclop - Quite sure. The tone might be characterized several ways, but it's the ONLY thing that truly distinguishes a question from a non-question (including some forms of "rhetorical question"). (The question mark in print is merely an indication in written text as to how the text should be pronounced.)
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 21, 2015 at 16:16
  • The reason I'm asking is because for example "Are you sure about that?" is a question that starts upwards but definitely falls off towards the end, with the top pitch usually at "sure". I can't even imagine this question ever being asked with a rising intonation at the end.
    – biziclop
    Oct 21, 2015 at 16:22
  • As pronounced by most people in the US "that" would have the rising tone.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 21, 2015 at 16:24
  • 1
    @JEL It gets even worse than that. Take the question "Would you like something to drink?" If you've got friends over and you ask them this, you'll probably employ a falling tone. But if a waiter/waitress asks the same question in a restaurant, the tone is more likely to be rising because the emphasis is on whether you want to drink as well as eat. And we haven't even mentioned such beauties as "Could you pass the milk, please?", which can potentially be rising-falling-rising-falling-rising-falling.
    – biziclop
    Oct 21, 2015 at 19:26

The clitic 's as a contraction of is is grammatically acceptable in any case where the is is not vocally stressed (and is not the final word in a sentence or clause). Assuming the speaker places vocal stress on the final word, the expression Where's it? is comparable to Where's he?, Where's she?, or Where's that? — Whether to choose is or 's in such cases is a matter of style, not grammar.

Consider the example posed in the original question, in its uncontracted form: If your column isn't country data, where is it? — If spoken aloud, the word is in this example would be vocally stressed, as it highlights the contrast with the earlier isn't. Because it's stressed, it can't be reduced to 's.


"Where's" is short for "where is" in spoken and informal English, the " 's " here is not to be confused with the genitive as in "Uncle Tom's Cabin". So it is not grammatically incorrect but may be too informal in the business context to which the web page presumably belongs.

  • 1
    Yes, "where's" is used, but I haven't heard it used that way. Usually "Where's the cheese?" Never "Where's it?" Oct 20, 2015 at 23:43
  • 3
    To add to the confusion, "Where's the mouse?" = "Where is the mouse?", but "Where's the mouse gone?" = "Where has the mouse gone?" Oct 21, 2015 at 5:27
  • If the mouse ran out of sight, you might call to the person perched on the kitchen stool "Where's it going?" (As other answers and comments suggest, it sounds normal because of the stresses).
    – JHCL
    Oct 21, 2015 at 8:24
  • 2
    And possibly also confusing, "Where's it now?" sounds ok to me. (The "where's it going" is changing the role of "is", which my example isn't) Oct 21, 2015 at 8:25

"Where's it?" is always wrong.

"Where's it at?" is completely valid however.

I think the difference might lie in the fact that "Where's it..." is almost the lead-in for something else. When you say "Where's it?" it makes it sound like you stopped talking before you got to the good part.

  • I have heard people say, "Where's it at?" It seems to be a regional idiom, in my experience, and not at all formal. If I were to see this sentence in technical writing or in a computer interface, I would conclude that the writing had not been sufficiently well edited.
    – David K
    Oct 22, 2015 at 21:27
  • I'd say it's slang, but still understood just fine by most people. They may judge you for it, but they'll know what you meant :) Oct 23, 2015 at 22:30
  • Yes, in the context of informal speech, I have never had difficulty understanding this idiom. For that matter, I had no difficulty understanding what the Spanish developers meant by "where's it". The question we're trying to answer here, however, describes a particular label on a Web form, so I would not say that "where's it at" is "completely valid" in that context.
    – David K
    Oct 23, 2015 at 22:56

It sounds like this is a table of data in which there are two neighbouring columns, one which might be named "region/country" and the other "country". If the data in the first column is a country then the second is blank; but if the data in the first column is not a country then it's presumed to be a region so data then appears in the second column to indicate the country of the regions. Of course, why you would list a country in the first column when you already have a column solely for country data is down to design. Hence, I presume that the question "If your column isn't country data, where's it?" pertains to the second column. That, I think, is what Steve is dealing with.

Regarding the question he wants to associate with the country column, obviously the last part has difficulties because of stress, but the first part would be clearer by displacing the "data" word thus: If your column data isn't a country, ... ?

I'm revising this because I've had second thoughts about whether the last part of the question is difficult because of stress; instead I now think that it's a matter of specificity. If you're specific enough then the contraction works: Where's Waldo?, for instance; but if you're not specific it doesn't work: Where's water?, as someone commented. This latter example is grammatically wrong, and if you correct it: Where's the/my/our water?, the clitic works. It even works for "Where's it?" if you make "it" specific: remember the creature named It from the Adams Family? When you refer to It then the clitic works: Where's It?

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