2

何{なに}がXですか。
Xは何{なん}ですか。

What are the different nuances associated with these two phrases?

4

Although both sentences could be translated as, "What is X?", a fuller explication reveals the differences.

何【なに】    が   X です  か。
what [SUBJ] X [is] [QUESTION]

Grammatically, the "what" is the subject of this sentence -- the 何【なに】 is the word marked with が, the subject particle. So we know that this question is about the 何【なに】, and the "X" is a descriptor of that 何【なに】.

Here, we know what X is. We could be asking what things are X. For example, if we assume that X = "dog", then we might be asking:

  • "What [of the things we see around us] are dogs?"

X  が   何【なん】   です  か。
X [SUBJ] what  [is] [QUESTION]

Grammatically, the "X" is the subject of this sentence -- the "X" is the word marked with が, the subject particle. So we know that this question is about the "X", and the 何【なん】 is a descriptor of that X.

Here, we don't know what X is, and we are asking about it.

  • "This thing, X, what the heck is it?"
  • Ty, I got it. Does the second explanation hold in the case of X何ですか。 – Davide La Vardera Oct 9 '18 at 18:50
  • I managed to find a different explanation at link, examples 1a and 1b. I'm confused now T-T – Davide La Vardera Oct 9 '18 at 19:13
  • 1
    The second explanation seems that for Xは何ですか instead of Xが何ですか (What's the point, when X is whatever?). – user4092 Oct 9 '18 at 23:32

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