1) Is the pronoun "what" correct in questions about professions?

I was taught that "What is he?" means "What is his job?", but personally I have never heard this question asked by those who speak English. So when asking about somebody's profession should I say "What is his job?" or " What does he do?"

2) How can I ask about a future profession: "What will you be when you grow up?" Sounds a bit weird to me, I would say "What job will you choose... ?". The same with "What are you?" Being used out of any context it seems odd... Thanks.

  • 1
    What's your occupation. What's your ambition. These sentences are idiomatic. Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 9:00
  • 3
    Be aware that "what is he' can be pretty offensive if taken out of context. For example, it's a pretty impolite way to ask when you're not clear about someone's race or ethnicity. If you're going to ask about occupation then "what does he do (for a living)" is more targeted.
    – Andrew
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 14:39

2 Answers 2


"What is he?" could answered in several ways, depending on the situation:

  • He's a runner.
  • He's a goalie. That guy over there is a defenseman.
  • He's Chinese, she's Canadian.
  • He's a carpenter.
  • He's a college graduate.
  • He's an impolite jerk who thinks he's God's gift to the workplace.

Indeed, "What is he?" can be used to ask about occupation, but it's a very vague question, so I'd expect surrounding context to make it more clear what the person asking the question means. For example:

Q: I know that Bob works at the radio station, and Linda is a doctor – but what is he?
A: Oh, he's a carpenter.

As for "What do you want to be when you grow up?" that's simply an idiomatic way to ask young children about future dreams. Once children being to mature and enter high school, they probably wouldn't be asked that question anymore. Instead, someone might ask, "What are your plans for after high school?" or, "What career field are you interested in?"

  1. Regarding to the first question whether to use "What is his job?" or " What does he do?" when talking about the someone's job, then the clearer question is: "What is his job?" but you can also ask the same thing in other ways such as: "what does he do for living" which is considered a very common phrase.

  2. For the second question, I would choose other options:

When asking "what will you be when you grow up?" for me it is a kind of a prophetic question, because nobody can know what he will be but he can know what he want to be:) the same thing with the question "what job will you choose in the future", even though they are grammatically correct and people sometimes may use them.

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