What is the difference between “What for?” and “For what?”

Understanding the Difference Between "What for?" and "For what?"

Understanding the Difference Between “What for?” and “For what?”

The English language is renowned for its intricacies, and even seemingly simple phrases can have subtle differences in meaning. Two such phrases that often cause confusion are “What for?” and “For what?“. While they may appear to be interchangeable, there are nuanced differences in their usage and context. In this article, we will look at the difference between the expressions “What for?” and “For what?” and give examples for better understanding.

When to use “What for?”

The phrase “What for?” is an idiomatic expression used to inquire about the purpose, reason, or motivation behind something. It is often used to seek clarification or justification for an action, decision, or request. “What for?” is commonly used in informal conversations, both in spoken and written English.

Example 1:

  • Person A: “I bought a new laptop.”
  • Person B: “What for?” (meaning: What was the purpose or reason for buying a new laptop?)

Example 2:

  • Person A: “I’m studying extra hours these days.”
  • Person B: “What for?” (meaning: Why are you studying extra hours? What is the purpose or reason?)

In this scenario, Person B is curious about why Person A is allocating more time to studying and is asking for the motivation behind it. Person B might be wondering whether it’s due to an upcoming exam, a difficult subject, or just a personal interest in studying more.

When to use “For what?”

On the other hand, “For what?” is a more formal and less commonly used phrase. It is often employed in more structured or professional contexts where precision and clarity are important. “For what?” seeks specific information regarding the intended purpose or objective of an action or request.

Example 1:

  • Interviewer: “You mentioned that you have experience in sales. For what industries have you worked?” (meaning: In which industries did you utilize your sales skills?)

The phrase “For what?” also used to ask about a purpose or reason, but is less common and can sound more formal. This phrase is more often used in written speech or formal situations.

Let’s consider 2 more examples:

  • “He applied for a scholarship.”
  • “For what purpose?”

In this case, the inquirer asks about the purpose or reason for applying for the scholarship.

  • “The company is investing in research and development.”
  • “For what reason?”

Here, the question “For what reason?” expresses a desire to know why the company invests money in research and development.

The difference between “What for?” and “For what?”

While “What for?” and “For what?” possess similar meanings, they differ slightly in their connotations and contexts. “What for?” is generally used in informal conversations and offers a broader sense of inquiry. It is useful when seeking an explanation about someone’s motives or simply trying to understand the purpose behind an action. On the other hand, “For what?” is more precise and formal, often used in specific situations, such as interviews or formal writing.

It is worth noting that the choice between these two phrases largely depends on the context and level of formality required in a given situation. Both expressions aim to gain clarity and information, but “What for?” is more flexible and widely used in everyday conversation.

In summary, “What for?” and “For what?” are similar phrases that serve the purpose of seeking clarification about the purpose or reason behind an action or request. While “What for?” is the more informal and commonly used expression, “For what?” is more specific and formal. Understanding the subtle differences in the usage of these two phrases will assist English learners in effectively expressing their queries or seeking information in various contexts.

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