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Suppose there is a box which can contain either an animal or object. I am confused in choosing either あります or います when asking the contents of the box.

  • 箱の中に何がありますか。

  • 箱の中に何がいますか。

Which should I use in this case? Any comments are welcome.

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    Is this a hypothetical question? Or do you frequently come across closed boxes that contain either an animal or an inanimate object? – Earthliŋ Jun 8 '15 at 12:47
  • Because I think the probability of the box containing a human is very very low so I can exclude 誰 here. It is a real scenario which might happen in my life. – Friendly Ghost Jun 8 '15 at 12:51
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    I'd use 入っています either way. It seems a whole lot more natural to talk about what's in any box this way, and for you, it means you don't need to worry about ある/いる differences. – sqrtbottle Jun 8 '15 at 13:23
  • Are there even any scenarios where you would have to say ある or いる instead of はいっている? – Blavius Jun 8 '15 at 14:20
  • It's interesting that you're unsure about ある or いる, but not about 何 or 誰. 何がいますか sounds strange to me, if not impossible, since this sentence by itself is inconsistent in its assignment of animacy. – dainichi Jun 9 '15 at 4:37
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1.「[箱]{はこ}の[中]{なか}に[何]{なに}がありますか。」

2.「箱の中に何がいますか。」

First of all, 「には」>「に」 if you want to sound natural.

If you absolutely must choose between the two, you would choose #1. That is because it is not natural to choose #2 unless you already know it is an animal inside.

There is, of course, a possibility that you say #1 and it turns out that it is an animal inside, but you would not be held responsible for using the "wrong" verb when you indeed did not know what was in the box but somehow thought it was an inanimate object.

If you did not have to choose between those two, you would have better choices and those include:

「箱の中には何が[入]{はい}っていますか。」

「箱の中に入っているのはなんですか。」 ← Only 「に」 is possible here.

「箱の[中身]{なかみ}はなんですか。」

Both of those are more neutral in the sense that whatever you find in the box in the end, you will be saved from having used the wrong word in asking your question.

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