I would like to know which word in the questions below is stressed in normal converstion.

What is it?

What is that?

What do you do?

Where do you live?

How about in other circumstances?

  • 2
    All of them can be used in different ways by stressing different words. – fixer1234 Feb 26 '17 at 7:48
  • Thank you. Could you differentiate What IS it? and What is IT? and WHAT is it? Thanks in advance. – user222399 Feb 26 '17 at 8:33
  • "Eww! That looks yucky! What IS it?" "It just broke."--"I don't know what you're talking about. What is IT that just broke?" "I know WHY it's there. My question is WHAT is it?" – fixer1234 Feb 26 '17 at 9:52
  • 1
    @fixer1234 "What is IT that just broke" is completely non-standard in modern English. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Feb 26 '17 at 10:30
  • @Araucaria, I was trying to come up with examples off the top of my head. In that case, the meaning was, "What "it" are you referring to?" in response to someone else using the word "it" in an ambiguous way. – fixer1234 Feb 26 '17 at 10:37
  1. What is that?
  2. What do you do?
  3. Where do you live?

In English, interrogative words nearly always carry stress. So the first words in each of the questions above will be stressed in any non-marked pronuncation.

Assuming that these questions are not repreating any topics that have already been mentioned, we will put the last musical stress in the sentence on the last word representing NEW information:

  1. What is that?
  2. What do you do?
  3. Where do you live?

Notice that if we have already mentioned or indicated something to the listener, this word will not take this last stress—known as the nucleus, or nuclear syllable. Instead the nucleus will move to the preceding word. So, with regard to example (1), if we have already talked about that or shown it to our partner, we will probably not say 4), but rather:

  1. What is that?

If the listener has just been talking about their job, but we didn't catch exactly what they said, then we won't use example (5). Instead we will say:

  1. What do you do?

Here the nucleus is on the word what because the rest of the words represent information that has already been discussed.

Now let's look at the Original Poster's first example. This is reproduced below:

  • What is it?

Notice that the last word here is the word it. Bcause we are using a personal pronoun here, it means that this thing has already been mentioned or indicated by either the speaker or the listener (when I say indicated, I mean brought to the mutual attention of the listener and speaker, so for example the thing may have been physically pointed at). For this reason the stress will shift to the preceding word, the word is:

  • What is it?

Notice that this also means that in contrast with example (1), we cannot contract the subject and the verb is in this example:

  • What's that?
  • *What's it? (not good)

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