My name is Tam - from Vietnam. Call me Tim if you like. I just saw this phrase in my English course book and not sure what it means. The phase is "what it is they do". Could somebody please give me a clue? Thanks so much!

  • It can also mean if in reference to a person or business what they do as a profession.
    – Intel
    Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 10:40
  • A typical example might be "I don't know [what it is they do]", where the bracketed element is an interrogative clause (embedded question) that can be glossed as "I don't know the answer to the question 'What is it (that) they do?'"
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 10:42
  • It is not a question, but rather an affirmation of what some individuals do.
    – Karlomanio
    Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 14:07

3 Answers 3


as an Italian I feel the sentence “what it is (that) they do”? as a calque of the Italian "cosa è che fanno".. probably introduced in the English language in the USA by Italian immigrants.. In Italian it sounds fine and understandable.. in English it sounds horrible, and probably "what they do" is sufficient...


They do something.

That something is what they do.

It is what they do.

I don't know what it is (that) they do.

The last sentence means the same as:

I don't know what they do

Except there is a strong implication in the first sentence that there is something that they do.


What is the meaning of the phrase “what it is they do”?

Of course it could be that this phrase is related to a text and is just asking what the people in the text do, albeit in bad English.

Example Jim and Harry are drinking coffee at a street stall. Jim & Harry are taxi drivers they are on their lunch break.

Answer the following questions 1. “what it is they do”? (meaning what is their work)


If the obvious answer is not correct then I will attempt the more complicated task of answering the question with the assumption that the English is correct.

What is the meaning of the phrase “what it is they do”?

This is difficult to answer. As the subject is a phrase not a sentence and in this case it is not a complete statement.

What we can do is we can speculate on what the sentence may be. However, before we do that, lets do a little work with what we have been given.

what it is they do In this case writing "they do." rather than "that they are doing" emphases the statement and modifies the subject "that". "They do" is an intransitive verb Sentence.com which does not require an object to receive its action. Although a grammar tutor would not necessarily accept that the statement above is grammatically correct. It is however normal spoken English.

Example That's why they give her the attention they do"

Example “Father, forgive them, For They Know Not What They Do" The Bible; Luke 23:34

For clarity I will rewrite it as the following (that) THEY DO! Hence we now have the phrase what it is (that) THEY DO!

I will assume that immediately before the Phrase would be the word Know as know what it is is a commonly used idiom. Now to make further sense of the sentence I will speculate that the full sentence could be

They do not Know what it is (that) they do! meaning They have no experience (knowledge) of what they are doing

know what it is idiom Merriam-Webster Definition of know what it is: to have experience with a situation, activity, or condition example He knows what it is to be poor.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.