What difference do different stress positions make to the meaning of the following sentence:

What would you like?

What would you like?

What would you like?

What would you like?


2 Answers 2


A. They sell all kinds of toys in here. Pick something and I'll buy it for you.
B. I don't like anything round.
A. Well, what would you like then?
B. Something red.
A. Okay, something red, but what would you like?
B. I hate that bear.
A. I don't want to know what you hate. What would you like?
B. Jane likes drawing.
A. What would you like?

So the meanings break down as:

  1. What would you like? (as opposed to some other property such as when or how you would like it)

  2. What would you like? (as opposed to what you wouldn't or don't like)

  3. What would you like? (as opposed to what another person would like)

  4. What would you like? (as opposed to what you might hate, or remember, or do something other than liking with)

  • What's the difference between 2 and 4?
    – Gigili
    Sep 11, 2012 at 20:01
  • @Gigili: In #2, the emphasis is on what particular thing you want (as opposed to a general category). In #4, the emphasis is on what you in particular want (as opposed to what someone else might want). Sep 11, 2012 at 21:34
  • @FumbleFingers I have them in different orders in my fake conversation, so maybe he means the second set? Let me cover that too. The difference in the 2nd set is that 2 is a response to a negative using the verb "like", and 4 is a response to a different verb altogether, like "hate" or "remember".
    – Lunivore
    Sep 11, 2012 at 22:00
  • 1
    @Lunivore: Both you and OP would have done better if you'd numbered the four different versions. In fact, I think the most common context for stressing "like" here is if the other person has just named some choice with the clear implication that they've chosen it for some other reason (it's cheaper, more convenient, etc.), rather than because it's what they'd really like. Sep 11, 2012 at 22:06
  • 2
    To both add to this answer, and in an attempt to answer @Gigili's comment - it's worth noting that there's also a difference here between "I would like" as a politer form of "I want", and "I would like" as just meaning "I like", but in the conditional tense. So "What would you like?" could mean "You don't want ice cream, so what do you want?" By contrast, "What would you like?" means "I want to give you something that you will enjoy, so tell me something that you actually like, as opposed to something that you're just moderately in favour of".
    – user16269
    Sep 12, 2012 at 2:15

Such stress is about emphasis.

For all but the second one, the emphasis is to distinguish that stressed item from possible replacements. For example,

What would you like

means that they want to emphasize that the question is about what you like rather than what you really really love or could afford or what you already have; not what you would love but what you would like.

The second sentence

What would you like?

is different in that there's really no alternative to the modal 'would' that makes sense (however one could imagine a situation where someone is talking about what one should like, and this is the alternative). But what I get out of the question is that the speaker is exasperated, the question 'What would you like?' (no emphasis) has been asked with poor responses so far. 

  • 3
    I imagine "What would you like?* being about you rather than some other person, with the emphasis on the person rather than the verb. "What would you like?" is frequently said by exasperated parents on hearing, "Nooooo, not chocolate!" when offering a child ice-cream, for instance.
    – Lunivore
    Sep 11, 2012 at 19:53

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