I have read a line in a book

"What friend did you hang out with ?"

and thought it was an error. However , I came across an English textbook that also used the same construction.

What American author wrote a series of books about a 10-year-old girl name Anastasia Krupnik?

Is this correct? Why isn't the interrogative pronoun "who" used instead?

  • Are you asking about the interrogative pronoun "what"? Do you want to know why "who" is not used? – Mari-Lou A Jan 15 '19 at 7:43
  • Yes . Why is WHO not used ? – Gugma Jan 15 '19 at 7:46
  • AmE seems heavily partial to what over which whenever it can get away with it. – Tushar Raj Jan 15 '19 at 12:24
  • Who could be used—but only if friend were removed. Who friend is ungrammatical. Alternatively, it could be Who(m) among your friends. – Jason Bassford Jan 15 '19 at 16:18

English grammar recognizes a distinct "determiner" function that is carried out by certain words that precede a noun. Only a limited set of words can be used as determiners. For example, the pronoun it cannot be a determiner, but the definite article the can. The word my is used as a determiner ("my book") but the word mine is used in other contexts ("That book is mine", "Mine has a blue cover").

The word who cannot be used as a "determiner", so *"who friend" or *"who American Author" are not valid noun phrases. "Who" would be used in a sentence without a following noun, such as "Who did you hang out with?" or "Who wrote a series of books about a 10-year-old girl name Anastasia Krupnik?"

The word what is used as a determiner, and in this function can be used regardless of whether the following noun is animate or inanimate. Which can also be used as a determiner with either animate or inanimate nouns; there is a previous question about when to use what and which.

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Think of "What author?" as being short for "What is the name of the author?"

This enables to reduce the relative clause "that/who wrote a series of books about…?" to "What author wrote a series of books about…?"

I would prefer replacing "what" with "Which author" but I guess it's a question of style.

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  • Being of a certain age, I too prefer which. – tchrist Jan 15 '19 at 13:03

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