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What's the difference between "Что ты улыбаешься?" и "Почему ты улыбаешься?" or in some other similar cases?

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    The two words have a similar meaning only when used with intransitive verbs. As far as I understand it, the former has more obvious connotations of perplexity, bewilderment and irritation, that's a rhetoric question; the latter sounds like a real desire to know the reason for doing the action in question. Please, feel free to re-post this comment as an answer to this question, if you think it's relevant, providing some examples of both types of questions. – Yellow Sky Jun 20 '13 at 23:13
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"Почему" simply means "why/what the reason"; "что" also has a variety of context-dependent informal meanings, including a mix of "why/what for". "Что" may also introduce a rhetorical tone to the question.

In your example, "Почему ты улыбаешься?" is always a neutral or friendly question, meaning "What made you smile?" The person who is asking is interested in an answer.

"Что ты улыбаешься?" may mean exactly the same when told in a positive manner, but it can also work as a rude opening, meaning "You'd better not be smiling". The person who is talking like that implies that there's nothing to smile about and/or that the smiling won't make any good. In that case, there's even a more aggressive version of this question: "Что ты лыбишься?" ("What the f*k are you smiling at/for?"). In many cases you can't really tell is "что" "why" or "what for", it is context dependent.

"Что" in this type of questions will never be used in formal speech.

  • Very good answer, straight to the point. I didn't know Что could be used with that meaning. :) Good to know! – Alenanno Jun 21 '13 at 10:36
  • Great answer! Could you shed some meaning on the word "лыбишься" please? Google translate isn't very useful, and from what I can vaguely see it's very much a proverbial term. Thanks! – Matt Fletcher Jul 4 '13 at 12:52
  • очень точно!... – garik Jul 4 '13 at 13:13
  • @MattFletcher, "лыбишься" (inf. лыбиться) is a verb meaning to grin, to smile not because something is funny or adorable, but because one's hiding his/her other emotions like sarcasm or gloat (or even stupidity) behind the smile. – Ilya Semenov Oct 2 '13 at 10:38
  • @IlyaSemenov Ah, thanks! I think the equivalent in English would be "grimace", would it not? – Matt Fletcher Oct 2 '13 at 15:16

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