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In my cherished second-hand 1958 Assimil textbook Le russe sans peine I see the question

Это что за работа ?

Why the nominative case, where I would expect an accusative?

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    Why would u expect accusative?
    – Anixx
    Dec 21 '14 at 11:53
  • @Anixx: because grammar books say that за is followed by accusative or prepositional, but don't mention nominative. Nikolay's answer shows that my expectation is natural and is in fact adopted in other languages. Dec 21 '14 at 17:17
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    I first learned за in contexts where it takes the instrumental: за столом (at/behind the table) or за мной (behind me).
    – KCd
    Dec 21 '14 at 17:38
  • @KCd: For me it was "За здоровье!", which I could say parrot-like long before I started learning Russian. By the way, I guess здоровье is in the accusative case here: is за ваше хорошую здоровье syntactically correct? Dec 21 '14 at 18:19
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    @GeorgesElencwajg: Because other possible toasts are за дружбу (common) and за теорию чисел (less common).
    – KCd
    Dec 21 '14 at 21:58
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Что за + nominative means "what kind of [a]...?". It's similar to the German Was für ein[e]...?

As for the nominative, it seems to be a fluke example of simply losing an oblique case (accusative), perhaps by analogy with что такое, which was a strong influence since the accusative had only affected the paradigm and the masculine animates.

Czech and Slovak have the exact same construction but still use the accusative; in Slovak, the sentence in your example would be Čo je to za robotu? Polish, on the other hand, uses nominative too: Co to za praca?

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  • 1
    Ah, it's very satisfactory to learn that Czech and Slovak use the accusative: this proves that there is a real linguistic confirmation of the naturality of the accusative. Thank you for this perfect and erudite answer. Dec 21 '14 at 17:18
  • @GeorgesElencwajg, purely as a matter of speculation, since these particular languages underwent a revival in the 19th century, with their modern standard largely codified back then, it could be a hypercorrection back from a hypothetical pan-Slavic phenomenon of nominativising it. I can't find any sources of this, though, so their keeping the original form remains the most likely explanation. Dec 21 '14 at 18:33
  • Looking at the Czech example I cannot help hypothesising that the original meaning may have been "What is it that you are giving me for (or instead of, i.e. за) work?
    – Avi Gordon
    Jan 14 '15 at 0:08
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Speaking about the preposition за, there are many cases possible: not only accusative and nominative, but instrumental also.

Что [это] за работа?

with the meaning What kind is this work of?

Что [мне заплатят] за работу?

with the meaning How much will I be paid for this work?

Не спи за работой!

with the meaning Don't sleep at work!

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    And if you change a question to an exclamation, the meaning will also change:(ах), что за работа! which means "What a work!" Dec 23 '14 at 23:53
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[Это] Что за работа? = What the work is (what kind)? (Nomenative)

Что за работу? = What [they pay] for the work? (Accusative)

"Это что за работу ? " - ungrammatical, unclear what is asked

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  • "Это что за работу ? " - ungrammatical, unclear what is asked you are right!
    – Zam
    Oct 26 '18 at 10:57
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I think we have two kinds of "за" in Russian language. One of them independent preposition, and one of them part of "что_за".

Be careful when determining word case by preposition. "За" is not the only example of two prepositions that look same.

My favourite example is preposition "в" which can be translated as "inside" or "into".

Мяч лежит в коробке -- Prepositional case

(ball is inside box)

Мяч положили в коробку -- Accusative_case

([They] put ball into the box)

Think of "что_за" as one preposition (wich should be followed by nominative), not as "что" followed by "за". Using this simple trick you can determine word case by preposition (in this case).

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