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We can add something to "what" to specify what we are asking, for example "What color is the flower?". But I am wondering why we can't say "What job are you?" instead of "What is your job?" to ask one's job.

By the way, can I say "What is the flower's color?" to ask for the flower's color?

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  • if you say that, it means what type of job you are! maybe "what job do you have" be better for your question.
    – Ahmad
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 14:36
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    As another twist "What profession are you?" totally works.
    – sbell
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 19:00
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    is-a versus has-a relations! Programmers to the rescue: stackoverflow.com/questions/2218937/…
    – chucksmash
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 20:12
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    "What profession are you?" doesn't work. It's "What profession are you in?".
    – user20827
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 22:46
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    I have a job, but I am not a job! I am a human being. Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 6:33

4 Answers 4

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You can, actually use the form you're talking about but you can't use "are". The problem is that a person isn't described as being a job, they have a job. When you use "are" in "What job are you?" you're saying that that job is part of what they are, which isn't really the case.

When we say "What is your job?", we are asking "What is the job that you have?", so we're not saying that they are that job.

So, you can say:

What job do you have?

It's a bit unusual a form but there's nothing wrong with it.

Here's an example that might happen... Say you're in a job interview and the interviewer is reviewing your resume (CV):

Interviewer: I see you worked at company X, what job did you have while you were there?


To make it slightly more confusing, when you talk about someone's line of work or trade, we do often use "to be".

I am a musician.
You are an engineer.
She is a doctor.
We/you/they are lawyers.

The odd thing is that it's difficult to invert these answers into a question that's not ambiguous. "What are you?" is the simple question, as Victor pointed out in his answer, but nothing about this question requires that the answer be about your line of work. People "are" a lot of things - they are their gender, their ethnicity, their nationality, etc.

In context, it's possible to say:

I'm a doctor, what are you?

But if you were talking to someone and just said "What are you?" without the context of discussing careers, you would likely be asked to explain your question.

The most common phrasing I've run into if you're trying to ask someone what their career is, rather than their job, is

What is your line of work?
What do you do?

Even without context, though, the second option can be a bit confusing though it's certainly less confusing than "What are you?" If you know where someone works, you could certainly say:

What do you do at Company Y?


And, yes, you can certainly say "What is the flower's color?"

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  • 4
    To riff off of this, things like doctor and lawyer are professions, while a job is the actual task or work, e.g. . So, in English, you can 'be a profession', e.g. "I am a plumber", but you can't 'be the job', e.g. "I am plumbing".
    – user151841
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 17:44
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    @Catija "I am doctoring this photo"
    – fluffy
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 19:42
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    @fluffy that does not in any way relate to the profession of "being a doctor".
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 19:43
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    If you're playing a video game or traditional role-playing game, "What job are you?" might actually be a legitimate question, since characters are their job (e.g. he is a mage, and she is a warrior). I'm not saying that this means it's appropriate everywhere, just that there are certain situations where such a phrase might be more common.
    – phyrfox
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 21:25
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    @Arcinde Not really. Your question is a shortened version of "What class are you a member of". In that case, your membership in that class is a part of who you are. You can never change that you were a member of that class. You can certainly change what job you currently have.
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 21:49
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As others have noted, we do not generally describe a person as "being" a job, but as "having" a job.

In general, if we are talking about an attribute of the person, we use "to be". "Al is black", "Betty is tall", "Carl is Norwegian", etc.

If we are talking about something they have or do, we use other phrasing. "Debbie has a job at Microsoft", "Edward likes chicken", etc.

Unfortunately, in practice the distinction isn't that clear-cut. We say someone "has" a job, but he "is" a profession. "Fred has a job at Frambar", but "Fred is an engineer."

The distinction can be used to make a point. This reminds me of a theological book I read once where the writer said, "You ARE a soul. You HAVE a body."

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Colours

Lets take the following statement:

Statement: I am red.

What is 'red'? It's a 'colour', so the corresponding question would be

Question: What colour are you? or What is your colour?

Jobs and Professions

Now, we can do the same thing with jobs:

Statement: I am a programmer.

Question: What profession are you? or What is your profession?

and compare this with

Statement: I have a programming job.

Question: What job do you have? or slightly more naturally: What kind of job do you have?

The thing to realize

What makes everything so confusing is that 'job' has become a term that can encompass both the profession ('programmer') and the work ('programming'), thus when you ask 'What is your job?' you can get an answer 'I am a programmer', even though from a very strict interpretation that would be an invalid answer. Either way, what it boils down to is that strictly speaking you have a job/work and you are a certain profession, yet for the joy of language you can still ask 'what is your job?' as a shortcut (although it's not a way I would phrase the question myself, probably opting with something more along the lines of 'What kind of work do you do?').

PS. I feel like I am totally not doing the issue justice to be honest and it's not helping that it's 3AM here. At least I hope it makes the distinction slightly clearer, but this answer still is sorely lacking.

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It sounds a bit awkward, perhaps because nobody is a job. One has a job. At the same time the idiomatic use is "What are you?" when we want to know the occupation of the person.

Yes, you can say "what is the flower's color?", nothing wrong with it that I can see.

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  • Personally, I would not understand "What are you?" to mean "What job do you have". You can certainly be an engineer or a musician but, outside of extreme context "I'm a musician, what are you"... the bare statement "What are you" doesn't imply "What is your line of work?".
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 15:16
  • Depending on the context, answers to "What are you?" could range from "male" to "American" to "full-time student" to "Earthman" to a million other things. If someone just walked up to me and asked, "What are you?" I'd have no idea how to answer.
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 16:08
  • A flower is not a color, either, and yet we can say "the flower is blue". Your answer needs to explain why this is valid for flower color while being invalid for a person's job, if you're going to base your answer on the latter part of this observation.
    – talrnu
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 18:53
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    @talmu I would interpret "the flower is blue" as a short form of "the flower is a blue flower" where "blue" is an adjective. I can't see how the word "job" can be an adjective.
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 19:41
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    No, It's not two separate questions, but one, "what are you, crazy?" Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 14:35

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