When is 'what' used for living beings?

16

4

I have seen phrases like

'What judge?'

and

'What prisoners?'

But I feel that 'which' is a more appropriate pronoun for living things.Why not 'which' has been used there?

Anubhav Singh

Posted 2016-07-05T12:45:36.980

Reputation: 3 391

Answers

32

Which is ordinarily used when asking for the identity of a specific member or members of a known group:

A: The government said they would release three prisoners.
B: Which prisoners? There are over a hundred of them.

What is ordinarily used when asking for the identity of somebody previously unknown.

A: The government said they would release three of the prisoners.
B: What prisoners? There should be no prisoners; they said last fall they had released them all.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2016-07-05T12:45:36.980

Reputation: 176 469

10The same principle applies to inanimate/abstract concepts like What height are you? - a valid response being whatever height, in whatever units, the respondent feels accurately reflects his height, whereas Which height are you? would presuppose a context where a limited number of height ranges are contextually known to both parties (valid response being the most appropriate predefined category). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2016-07-05T13:19:29.230

4

For completeness, it might be good to also mention "who", which is the standard English interrogative pronoun for people, but cannot act as a determiner; that is, while you can say "Who?" or "What prisoners?", in normal English you cannot say *"Who prisoners?", but must instead use "what" in that case.

– Ilmari Karonen – 2016-07-05T20:37:33.293