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I was playing around with Google translate to try to figure out how to ask what's in a container, and it suggested the following two sentences:

箱の中は何ですか

カートには何が入っていますか

So, firstly, why did it give a different sentence structure for "what's in the box?" vs "what's in the cart?"

Second, are those two sentence structures basically interchangeable, or is there a different meaning to asking "_の中は何ですか" vs "_には何が入っていますか"?

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    So, firstly, why did it give a different sentence structure for "what's in the box?" vs "what's in the cart?" It's google translate. It doesn't actually understand language, it just cobbles together strings of text from examples it knows about. There's no way to answer "why" it did something, and that reason wouldn't be related to something meaningful about Japanese.
    – Leebo
    Sep 19, 2023 at 22:36

2 Answers 2

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Grammatically speaking, there is no tricky difference between 箱 ("box") and カート ("cart"). カートの中は何ですか and 箱には何が入っていますか are both perfectly correct sentences, too.

As for your second question, as long as you're talking about a container-like object, the meanings of those two sentence structures are similar. However, the noun 中 assumes there is an inside space, whereas 何が入っていますか can be used a little more generically, for example when asking about the ingredients in food or liquids, or about a spirit currently possessing someone.

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  • 「箱の中は何ですか」のほうに若干ぎこちなさを感じていて、「箱の中身は~」というべきかと思ったんですが、そこらへんどうなんでしょう?好みの範疇でしょうか
    – rk03
    Sep 20, 2023 at 2:27
  • @rk03 確かに「中身」は容器に対して、「中」は部屋や車に対して使われる傾向があるとは思いますが、「箱の中は何ですか」がぎこちないかと言われると、うーん微妙…という感じでスルーしていました
    – naruto
    Sep 20, 2023 at 2:58
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I agree with naruto's description of the nuance; I just want to try to give a bit more analysis. The relevant sense of 〇〇に入る is "to be contained within 〇〇". This is more general than 〇〇の中である, which is more like "to exist at the interior of 〇〇".

Taking a very literal approach:

箱の中は何ですか -> "About the interior of the box, what is there?"

カートには何が入っていますか -> "About the cart, what is being contained within it?" (入っています is the polite ます ending attached to 入っている, the te-iru form of 入る.)

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