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I am a newbie at Russian. To the best of my knowledge, есть is used in questions when possession is being questioned. I was given the following sentences and their translations:

Have you the good sugar? -> у вас ли хороший сахар?

Have you the cheese? -> у вас ли сыр?

So far, so good. But why do the following sentences have есть in them. They don't look(to me) that much different from the above:

Have you good coffee? -> Есть ли у вас хороший кофе?

Have you a new lantern? -> Есть ли у вас новый фонарь?

What am I not seeing that makes all the difference in the latter sentences?

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The difference is in emphasis:

  1. У вас ли сыр? - Is the cheese with you?
  2. Есть ли у вас сыр? - Have you got any cheese?

Ли usually follows the word being questioned:

(1) questions the location of the cheese (with you or somewhere else?)
(2) questions the existence of any cheese with you.

One could also ask:

  1. Сыр ли у вас? - Is it cheese that you have?

У вас ли is usually preceded by не:

  • Не у вас ли наша собака?
  • Не у тебя ли моя ручка?

Keep in mind that ли is rather bookish. In a conversation, you would rather say:

  1. Сыр у вас?
  2. У вас есть сыр?
  3. Это у вас сыр?
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I only want to add to (correct and complete) Sergey's answer that questions like "не у вас ли моя ручка" oftentimes imply that the person asking actually already knows that the answer would be yes, like in:

Ты хочешь одолжить у меня чайник? А не у тебя ли мой пылесос, Пётр Николаевич?

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У вас ли сыр? - you are asking about certain piece of cheese that you are searching. You know it is at somebody's but not sure at whom.

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  • How about <<у вас ли хороший сахар?>> – user1801060 Feb 5 at 11:42
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    @user1801060 the same as "У вас ли сахар?" - you just specify a certain piece or vessel of sugar, good sugar specifically. You know where the bad sugar is but you need that specific package of good sugar you are searching for. – Anixx Feb 5 at 12:30

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