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What's your favorite actor?

Is such a formulation ("what", not "who") acceptable in AmE? Some source says that it is acceptable and even fine.

Update. Some examples: 1) what's your favourite actor?

2) what's your favourite composer?

3) what's your favorite singer?

Update 2. More examples:

1) what's your favorite president?

2) what's your favorite historical figure?

I've added the two examples just to show that such usage is not a single phenomenon.

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    British English here, but I read the title and didn't bat an eyelid. When I read your comment I was rather surprised because I feel this should sound wrong to me, but it doesn't. – Muzer Oct 20 '17 at 14:09
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    Also British English, and it sounds totally wrong. I would expect someone to correct themselves in speech if they used "what" instead of "who" to refer to a person or their role/occupation. – Dan Oct 20 '17 at 15:42
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    The 1st link is most probably due to clumsiness, the author started with What's your favorite movie? then What's your favorite band or singer or type of music? (Which is clumsy in itself) then What's your favorite actor, actress? so safe to say no one proofread the author's book. All perfectly acceptable in speech, it's easier to get away with slip-ups, but not in writing. – Mari-Lou A Oct 20 '17 at 19:38
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    @Yulia if the speaker is native, and the dialogue otherwise fluid, coherent and cohesive, I don't think anyone would notice What is your favorite actor. However, if the speaker is non-native, their accent thick, and their speech peppered with hesitation and incoherencies then the inaccuracies become far more noticeable. – Mari-Lou A Oct 20 '17 at 22:39
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    Native English speakers make mistakes like this all the time, it's quite common, but that doesn't mean it's not a mistake. – barbecue Oct 22 '17 at 22:08
33

No, I don't think this is acceptable -- I've never heard this used before in American English, and I'm pretty sure it isn't used in any dialect. An actor is a person and must be referred to as "who."

Also, "favourite" is a British spelling. "Favorite" is AmE.

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    It is simple politeness to let the listener know that you are talking about a person. An inanimate pronoun will certainly function, and is appropriate if the field [of answers] includes both animate and inanimate options, but we still have the animate pronouns so use them when appropriate. – amI Oct 21 '17 at 19:54
14

It would be unremarkable in casual, extemporaneous speech, when we sometimes let our mouths get ahead of our brains—I start out to ask "what's your favorite movie?" but then shift gears halfway through a sentence and say "actor" instead of "movie", or I've been asking a series of questions about favorites that are things and forget to switch my sentence structure when I get to a question about people. Some very casual writing, like online comments, can also be like that: the fingers get ahead of the brain (or auto-correct misinterprets something), and the question gets "published" to the internet, or the email or text is sent, before the brain notices the error and makes a correction.

On the other hand, I would be surprised to hear or see it in careful speech or writing. And, in fact, if we use Google Ngram1 to search published works, we find that "What is your favorite [person]" is so rare as not to show up in results at all, whereas "Who is your favorite" actor/author/singer all appear:

Google Ngram chart comparing phrases "What is your favorite actor" "What is your favorite author" and "What is your favorite singer", none of which were found at all, with "Who is your favorite actor", "Who is your favorite author", and "Who is your favorite singer", all of which appear on the chart. This was a case-sensitive search, with the first word of each phrase capitalized. The most commonly appearing phrase is "Who is your favorite author", which makes its debut on the chart in the late 1800s and remains on the charts at a rate varying between 0.00000005% and 0.0000004%. The other "Who is" phrases appear later, "actor" first around 1910 and "singer" not until the 1940s; both remain relatively rarer than "author" except for a brief period in the 1950s-60s when "actor" very slightly overtakes "author". As of 2000, "author" was around 0.00000015% and both "actor" and "singer" appeared at a rate around 0.00000005%.

This corpus includes novels and plays, so as of 2000 "What is your favorite" actor/author/singer was not standard enough to make it even into dialogue.


1This version of Google Ngram searches Google Books circa 2009, a corpus primarily composed at that time of books held in the University of Michigan's library, and thus is fairly representative of US publishing standards over time (up to the year 2000). Standard caveats of Ngram usage apply.

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    @Yulia And, unfortunately, there's a huge difference between "proofread before publishing" and "the internet"! – TripeHound Oct 20 '17 at 15:59
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    @Yulia - Sure, but it's a book published on Xlibris. Xlibris is a self-publishing company – that means no editors and no proofreading, except maybe by Uncle Frank and Aunt Edna. One hit in a self-published book does not make a usage acceptable. Bottom line: look for trends. There's a big difference between a book on Xlibris and a journal article written by an author whose third language is English, and 10,000 hits from mainstream authors and reputable publishers. – J.R. Oct 20 '17 at 18:13
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    @Yulia i think there could be something to your theory. I wouldn't rule it out, despite what ngram says. The kids today, they use their own apps and have their own way of saying things, away from our analytical tools. – Ringo Oct 20 '17 at 21:44
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    @Ringo - Impeccable? I don't think "Music" or "Artist" should be capitalized, and I think "Tv" would be better written as "TV". There is no question mark after Question 10, and the word "Guitar" in 11E should be in all lower-case. In Question 8, "Grudge" should not be capitalized, but "spanish" should be (as it should be in Question 7). All the song titles in Question 2 should be written in Title Case, but they are not. Then there's that "What's your favorite singer?" gaffe.... – J.R. Oct 21 '17 at 10:16
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    @J.R.Your proofreading skills are impeccable! :-) I concede. – Ringo Oct 21 '17 at 15:23
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What source says this is acceptable or even fine? The title of a YouTube video an hardly an authoritative source. People commonly use poor grammar on internet message boards and the like.

You also linked to a poll that asks, "What is your favorite singer?", yet I couldn't help but notice that same page has links to surveys such as "What is your favorite food?" and "What is your favorite color?" This may have just been a copy-and-paste error.

I don't know if I can say "What is your favorite singer?" unequivocally wrong, but I can say that "Who is..." sounds much better than "What is..." in such contexts.

Rather than assuming the title of a pop poll means that a usage is acceptable, I'd say that it means people are too careless with their English grammar.

  • forum.wordreference.com/threads/… But the participant who stated that is banned (and I don't know the reason). – Yulia Oct 20 '17 at 15:00
  • I asked the question just because when I googled "What's your favorite actor?", I got a lot of links confirming my guess that asking such questions with "what" has become a kind of tendency. Glad that I am wrong. – Yulia Oct 20 '17 at 15:13
  • Yes, I saw this source. Yes, he is banned. :-) – Ringo Oct 20 '17 at 15:17

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