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After being told over text that someone was cooking, I responded with “what?”. I thought to myself that that “what” could have different meanings - was I confused about what the person had said, or was I inquiring as to the food he was cooking?

In my head, depending on the meaning, it’d be said differently. If I was confused about what the person had said, “what” would be said with a stronger tone than if I was wondering what they were cooking.

Is there a general rule for this phenomenon?

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This is an example where the expressed meaning would be changed based on intonation.

Intonation is used for a variety of things:

such as indicating the attitudes and emotions of the speaker, signalling the difference between statements and questions, and between different types of questions, focusing attention on important elements of the spoken message and also helping to regulate conversational interaction.

Intonation is rather difficult to be communicated through non verbal methods of communication. Sometimes punctuation is all it takes "The panda is hungry." vs. "The Panda is hungry?", however in this example it is a challenge with the singular word answer. "what?" or "What?" Could lead to both examples of confusion and inquisition on what is being cooked. "What." or "wut" in a casually texting conversation demonstrate more confusion to me than inquisition. "What" or "what" with no punctuation are the most neutral examples between confusion and inquisition in this context.

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