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I sense that using "なん" in questions probably makes the question sound more formal:
"どこなんですか?" // maybe more formal?
"いつなんですか?" // maybe more formal?
"だれなんですか?" // maybe more formal?

Am I right about this? Maybe this is very similar to the function of [美化語]{びかご}?

But, I don't remember ever seeing this in written Japanese. I suspect that this is just because using fewer characters trumps whatever formality "なん" may, or may not, inject into questions?

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なんなんですか? (filler) –  istrasci Nov 21 '13 at 18:33
@istrasci If I remember correctly, you eat it with curry. –  kinyo Nov 21 '13 at 20:46
No, you can add なん to the question なんですか as you did with the other question words. 何なんですか = 何なのですか. –  istrasci Nov 21 '13 at 22:08
It is quite the opposite of what you appear to be thinking. なん is very informal. When you start hearing lots of ん's and small っ's, that is a good sign of when we have gone informal. –  Tokyo Nagoya Nov 22 '13 at 3:54
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1 Answer

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I don't think なん is particularly formal. It's short for なの. If I understand the traditional grammar right, な here is analyzed as 断定の助動詞「だ」の連体形「な」, a form which appears chiefly before the 形式名詞「の」 in constructions such as 「〜なのだ」「〜なので」「〜なのに」「〜なのか」 and so on.

I think it's like this:

 どこ + のだ = どこのだ

So the difference in meaning is the same you get from adding 〜のだ to a sentence.

If you take the above and change だ to です and add か, then you've almost got your original example. You just need to change の to ん:

 どこなですか → どこなですか

I think that this の can change to ん anywhere as long as it doesn't end the sentence, but like most reduced forms it's less formal than the full version. (It can even be reduced to ん at the end of a sentence in certain dialects, but I was taught that this is non-standard Japanese.)

I think 〜なの can be rather informal, particularly when it ends a sentence, as in feminine speech. Compare:

  1. そうなのです

  2. そうなの。

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There was a question about this somewhere, but I wouldn't say that ending a question in の is necessarily feminine speech. Rather, ending a sentence in の is decidedly feminine, e.g. そうなの。. –  Earthliŋ Nov 21 '13 at 17:28
@Earthling Is that different than what I said? "Particularly when it ends a sentence, as in feminine speech" –  snailboat Nov 21 '13 at 17:48
Just as "where is it?" sounds a little abrupt in my opinion, I thought maybe "どこですか?" has a similar tone. While I'd thought that using a "なん" would not significantly change the meaning, it might make the question seem less aggressive. I've no facts to back that up though. Personally, except for a 何 question, I always use a なん as a suffix in questions. –  kinyo Nov 21 '13 at 18:11
@snailboat The example you give, though, is for a question, which might as well be masculine speech. I might just have misunderstood the Compare: to give an example for "feminine speech", when in fact it is supposed to be an example for "rather informal". –  Earthliŋ Nov 21 '13 at 19:11
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