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To add to WReach's answer, since = works on the entire cell, it can return formatted Wolfram|Alpha pods when there is no corresponding Wolfram Language syntax. It wouldn't make much sense to have a formatted W|A pod inline. Compare = vs CTRL-= Clicking on the gray question mark says exactly this:


= can only be entered at the beginning of a cell and then interprets the entire cell content as a free-form WolframAlpha query. By contrast, CTRL-= can be used to create an inline WolframAlpha interpretation cell that appears in the middle of an otherwise normal expression. For example, we can start by typing ImageDimensions[ followed by CTRL-= to create ...

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