A teacher asked me this question and I am having a hard time finding a simple way to explain it for her to share with her students. I`m looking for the easiest way to explain it to her because she teaches Junior High School English in Japan.

The students were given a picture prompt and expected to answer with,

"Who is the girl playing the piano?"

Many of the students wrote,

"Who is she playing the piano?"

How would I explain, in a very simple way, why you cannot use she here?

Thank you so much for your help!

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    You've selected an incorrect answer (a good pointer is that another answer has more votes). Personal pronouns (I, you he, she it, we ...) are not like normal nouns. We cannot use determiners like all, some, many with them. We cannot (usually) put adjectives before them. We cannot freely use participle clauses to modify them (that is what is happening in your example). This has nothing to do with commas. You are being fed false information by someone who is guessing the answer. Don't let your teacher friend give fake news to your student. – Araucaria Jan 9 at 23:54
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    I would caution that in an exercise like this, the proper criterion is not merely whether you can or cannot use a particular word. It is more useful at this level of instruction to teach the students to speak and write in ways that are in common use and promote good communication, and to avoid obscure constructions even if they are technically correct. – David K Jan 10 at 3:34
  • @DavidK - Thank you :) I appreciate everyone`s responses (very much) but I was looking for a simple answer for that very reason, in the context of these students being English language learners in a foreign country. The students are Junior High School (8th) grade students who are learning English to pass their High School exams. The answers for the exams are quite specific. I want to help but, it is an education itself, learning how English is taught in different countries...how they approach it, translate it, and structure it against their own. – Hojo Jan 10 at 23:41
  • @DavidK - You are absolutely correct about the type of instruction the teachers are looking for. It has been very enlightening though to this teacher, the types of responses given. Thank you for your observation. – Hojo Jan 10 at 23:44
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    @Hojo Note that the Japanese language frequently modifies pronouns with premodifying adjectival and verbal clauses, so much so that it is often debated whether Japanese really does have a pronoun class separate from its noun class. ピアノを弾く私 (lit. piano-playing I/me) is perfectly valid as a phrase in standard and colloquial Japanese. – Michaelyus Jan 11 at 14:55

11 Answers 11


You can use she, if you pause to make the meaning clear:

Who is she, playing the piano?

Without the pause, this is a kind of "garden path" sentence, because it leads you to a wrong expectation about how the sentence will end, creating a cognitive dissonance.

Once you hear "who is she playing..." you expect the sentence to end with something like "at tennis on Tuesday?", and the question to be about who she is playing against, rather than who she is to begin with.


As mentioned in comments, a more common way to express this in everyday speech would be

Who is that playing the piano?

However, I don't believe it would be fair to mark a student wrong for using she.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – snailboat Jan 11 at 14:42
  • Nice answer, but this doesn't answer the OP's question (regardless of whether they selected it or not!) – Araucaria Jan 11 at 23:34
  • @Araucaria, when a question is based on a false premise, a good answer is to explain why the premise is false. How would you answer "Why is 2 + 2 = 5?" – The Photon Jan 11 at 23:50
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    @ThePhoton The students wrote ungrammatical sentences. There is no pause indicated in their prompt, we must assume. There's no wrong premise here at all. :( They have a problem. Someone came here to help them out. This answer doesn't do that. It's just clever about when the wrong answer could be grammatical - if it was changed somewhat. Not an answer. – Araucaria Jan 11 at 23:54
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    To put it another way, @ThePhoton, we haven't seen the picture or read the prompt, but we know what one correct response is: "Who is the girl playing the piano?" Unless you mean to say that the response "Who is she, playing the piano?" is a grammatically valid question with practically the same meaning, you're responding to something other than the point of the original post. – Gary Botnovcan Jan 12 at 0:31

Personal pronouns don't want to be directly modified, especially in the subjective case.

We naturally say things like "That tall girl is in my class" and "The girl playing piano is very good". Nouns like "girl" work well with adjectives and participial phrases.

We don't naturally say things like "That tall she is in my class" or "She playing piano is very good". The pronoun "she" acts more like a complete and finished noun phrase than a simple noun. It doesn't play nicely with things like adjectives and participial phrases.

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    This is the only answer that actually answers the question, I believe. +1. Other answers seem to focus on the plausible semantics of the given sentence, not on the syntax of the intended meaning. – justhalf Jan 8 at 22:28
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    +1, though it's a bit of an oversimplification; something like "she who is playing the piano" or "she of the long hair" is grammatical but literary, whereas the OP's *"she playing the piano" is out-and-out ungrammatical. – ruakh Jan 9 at 1:44
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    @barbecue: I don't understand your comment. I don't see any similarity between the OP's example and your Shakespeare example. Which part/aspect of it strikes you as "a similar weird usage"? – ruakh Jan 9 at 1:46
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    Well, @Ruakh, does it help to compare "as rare as any mistress belied with false compare" to "as good as the girl playing the piano", especially after substituting "she" for both "mistress" and "the girl"? I think that Barbecue and I read that sonnet's last line in the same way. – Gary Botnovcan Jan 9 at 15:14
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    Fine, maybe. Unrelated to the OP, almost certainly. You're presenting the participial phrase as a parenthetical, and probably supplemental, modifier. The question is how to explain why it fails as a direct modifier. It fails because personal pronouns, especially in the subjective case, don't typically work that way. Things like "tall she" and "she playing the piano" aren't coherent phrases. – Gary Botnovcan Jan 10 at 16:31

The answers by The Photon and Gary Potnovcan explain it well, in my opinion, but I'd like to include and addendum focusing on the fact that you're teaching Japanese students.

English pronouns versus Japanese "pronouns"

Let me start quoting Wikipedia:

In linguistics, generativists and other structuralists suggest that the Japanese language does not have pronouns as such, since, unlike pronouns in most other languages that have them, these words are syntactically and morphologically identical to nouns.

So first of all, the confusion of the students is completely understandable because in Japanese the "pronouns" work exactly as nouns. The word the students were probably thinking of is 彼女 (kanojo), which is often translated as "she", but can simply mean "the woman" (excluding the speaker and the person being spoken to). In other words, 彼女 can literally be translated as "the girl" as well.

That said, I believe that, from a teaching perspective, this is a great opportunity to insist on the differences between English pronouns and Japanese "pronouns". Context is a very strong thing in Japanese, almost everything can be omitted and context will do its work. English on the other hand is not: for example, every English clause must have a subject. When there isn't a useful one, we put an "it" there. This is very odd for japanese English learners.

So, what exactly is a pronoun? I am not a linguist, but I'll try: "a pronoun is a word that refers to some other noun that was mentioned before, or is about to be mentioned, or can be inferred by context". If this is not strictly correct, recall that beginners are being taught here so minor nitpicks can be postponed.

In Japanese, we don't use anything like the above definition of pronoun, context itself works already. But in English, we need a word. English sentences have structures much more "solid". Instead of simply omitting everything that can be inferred, as is done in Japanese, in English those things are replaced by pronouns.

So, if we wanted to ask

Who is the girl that I am pointing to right now?

In Japanese we can let context do its work by asking


which is literally just "who?", while in English we need to follow the structural boilerplate which requires a verb and at least a pronoun:

Who is she?

and here "she" is the word that carries the context inside it.

Hopefully this will help clearing things up with the students that might be thinking that she and the girl are exactly the same thing.

  • Well, both she and the girl probably are the same (かのじょ) :o) – Will Crawford Jan 9 at 17:24
  • Note that in formal English, you can use "she" in all cases in which you'd use "the girl" – at least, in my experience. – wizzwizz4 Jan 10 at 22:09
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    @wizzwizz4: You can say "That's the girl I saw yesterday", but I don't think you can say *"That's she I saw yesterday." – sumelic Jan 11 at 2:06
  • @sumelic Maybe it's dialectical then. – wizzwizz4 Jan 11 at 7:35
  • @wizzwizz4 I don't think so, though. It's grammatical. – Araucaria Jan 12 at 0:11

I would explain it very simply: a pronoun is supposed to refer clearly to a noun, usually one that precedes the pronoun. The meaning of "pronoun" is something that takes the place of a noun.

An interrogative pronoun will normally not be preceded by a noun because of the way questions are formed in English, but the expectation is that the noun being referred to will follow the pronoun quickly. In the sentence recommended against, there is no noun at all for either "she" or "who."

Thus, the sentence is awkward and not highly idiomatic. I do not think it is ungrammatical, but it is hard to follow. It still would be a bit odd, but much clearer to say "Who is she that is playing the piano." Now the entire clause will be heard as a substitute for a specific noun.

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    I like this answer because a sequence like "Who is this annoying idiot at the altar? Who is he ruining my wedding??" seems more natural than the last sentence on its own, without reference. Btw, it's perhaps even a common rhetorical figure for arrogantly addressing somebody in the third person: "Who is he disturbing my dinner?" – Peter A. Schneider Jan 10 at 5:24
  • @PeterA.Schneider Hold on a minute, though. Where's the quickly following noun in "who disappeared?". – Araucaria Jan 12 at 0:20
  • Interrogative pronouns never have the noun they are referring to following them quickly, because the noun phrases they are referring to are represented by a gap in the following clause. They are compulsorily missing!!! – Araucaria Jan 12 at 0:23
  • @Auracana I see. According to you, the "who" in Who is the girl playing the piano" is not an interrogative pronoun? Interesting viewpoint. – Jeff Morrow Jan 12 at 0:26
  • @JeffMorrow Of course it's a pronoun, but your claim that "the expectation is that the noun being referred to will follow the pronoun quickly" isn't accurate. Far from it :( – Araucaria Jan 13 at 0:10


The solution is the one provided by the OP

"Who is the girl playing the piano?"

If you want to know why using "she" in place of "the girl" is mistaken, see @Pedro A and @Gary Botnovcan's answers. But if someone is interested to see how "she" can fit into a grammatical sentence, see my answer below.

How would I explain, in a very simple way, why you cannot use she here?

You can use “she” but the meaning will be different.

  1. Who is he fighting? (correct and most common in speech)
    Whom is he fighting? (formal)
    Who is the person he is fighting against?

  2. Who is she talking to?
    To whom is she talking?
    Who is the person (or people) she is talking to?

  3. Who are they going to compete with?
    With whom are they going to compete?
    Who is the person (or people) they are going to compete with?

  4. Who is she playing the piano? (odd sounding)
    To fix this question you need a preposition.

  5. a) Who is she playing the piano with?
    b) With whom is she playing the piano? (very formal and rarely heard in speech)
    c) Who is she playing the piano to?
    d) To whom is she playing the piano?
    e) Who is she playing for?
    f) For whom is she playing the piano?

Sentences b), d) and f) are a very formal way of asking a question and rarely heard or used in speech today but for some prescriptivists, the pronoun whom, which refers to the object of a preposition, is considered to be the only grammatically correct choice. Well, I'm sorry, they are sadly mistaken.

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    This seems the only accurate answer of the bunch. In the questionable sentence, by default "she" refers to the object, not the subject. It's not ambiguous at all -- it's just weird in the given context. – Andrew Jan 8 at 4:59
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    @Tim The OP already knows that the "correct" solution is "Who is the girl playing the piano?", so no point in me repeating that. My answer shows (hopefully) how the student's sentence (Who is she playing the piano?) could be made perfectly grammatical. I did, however, also warned that the meaning would change. I'm not saying the meanings are identical to the OP's. – Mari-Lou A Jan 8 at 9:00
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    I would not suggest using "who" as object for explaining why OP's sentences work. "who" is subject (in some dialects also objects), "whom" is object, and this does not matter here at all. – rexkogitans Jan 8 at 10:08
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    And then there is sentence (e): Who is she playing the piano for? @Tim - No, there needn’t be two at the piano. “Who did Paul McCartney play guitar with?” (Answer: With John, George, and Ringo.) – J.R. Jan 8 at 13:25
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    @rexkogitans the vast majority of native speakers, British, Australians and Americans will choose to say "who" – Mari-Lou A Jan 8 at 17:32

I parse this (at least in a spoke context) as similar to:

Who does she think she is, playing the piano?


Who is she, to be playing the piano?

The original phrase suggests to me that the piano player is in some way out of place, and the emphasis is not just on the identity of the she, but more on something less pleasant. Depending on the context of the phrase, it may be intended as discriminatory, or it may accidentally reflect a phrasing which has been used to discriminate in the past. Obviously in the context asked it is accidental, but that doesn't capture potential confusion if this sort of phrase is used in conversation.

As mentioned in comments, this does not feel like a phrasing which would occur in written English.

  • That's how I read the original sentence, too - with an air of incredulity. +1, none of the other answers have addressed that subtle context. – Nuclear Wang Jan 8 at 14:08
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    "Depending on the context of the quote..." We know the context: it is a statement by someone who is still learning English, so we shouldn't read subtle implications into it. Those would be accidental. All Hojo is asking for in this question is an easily understood explanation for why one of his quoted sentences is OK, and the other one isn't. – Lorel C. Jan 8 at 15:36
  • My explanation is simple - there is a risk of people drawing inferences which are not intended when this construction is used by accident. This is why it should not be used even if it feels kind of OK to a non-native speaker. We already have answers which imply the phrase might be OK to use, and I think these don't tell the whole story. – Sean Houlihane Jan 8 at 15:54
  • This highlights the difference between "Who's she?" and "Who is she?". The sentence in the OP sounds like the latter. The former might be complimentary. – Aaron F Jan 9 at 12:30
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    That was the way I took the sentence. A point that needs to be made is that I would never expect to see this in written English, only spoken with an emphasis on "she". It would indicate the speaker's belief that the playing was inferior and not appropriate to the setting. – Ross Millikan Jan 11 at 4:16

When you are asking about identity, it is a good idea to give the category of person, - student - teacher - man, woman, child - person - your friend, their friend etc.

Who is she? [she is not identified at all]. She is my friend and a nice person. Who is your friend playing the piano? Who is that person playing the piano? Who is that playing the piano? [that=that person]

That's the easiest answer I can come up with.

"Who is" introduces a question. It may be followed by: - a noun: Who is John? Who is that man? Who is the winner? - an adjective: Who is late? - a verb: Who is coming to the party. [John is coming to the party.] Who plays the piano? The pronoun "who" is a subject pronoun in the question "who is [plus verb or noun]", ergo, saying she is ungrammatical. You can't have "who" as an interrogative pronoun and she as a subject pronoun together.

Please note: Who is playing the piano? Mary is playing the piano. In the interrogative form, you do not use a pronoun when the identity is unknown.

  • Who is playing the piano? Mary is playing the piano. versus
  • Who is Mary? She is a pianist.
  • Who is she? She is Mary.

In the interrogative form, there is no **she (pronoun) because the pronoun here, the subject pronoun is "who".** Therefore, "Who is she playing the piano?" would be providing two subject pronouns.

  • Yeah, I can't even come up with an answer that good. Still, I think there's one "out there". – Lorel C. Jan 8 at 15:39
  • @LorelC. I updated it after an overnight think. – Lambie Jan 8 at 16:05

I think it's because a participle (such as playing the piano) can't modify a personal pronoun (such as she).

These are all correct:

  • Who are you looking at? The girl playing the piano.
  • Who is the girl playing the piano?
  • The girl playing the piano is Sarah.

These are all incorrect:

  • Who are you looking at? Her playing the piano.
  • Who is she playing the piano?
  • She playing the piano is Sarah.

I don't know if this will help your students, but here goes. From the formal linguistics perspective, the intended question is constructed by starting with

play piano

Then you attach the interrogative pronoun 'who' as the subject

who play piano

So there's no place for another subject pronoun.

When you make it present tense and imperfective aspect, the verb structure becomes

be who playing piano

The subject 'who' raises to subject position and triggers agreement with 'be' to form

who is playing piano

It's possible that your students are misunderstanding 'who' as a complementizer instead of a pronoun. So in their incorrect sentence 'who is she playing the piano' the 'who' might be intended to correspond to 'whether' in

I wonder whether she is playing the piano

Theoretically, there's a wh-complementizer at the very top of the correct question structure, but it has no spoken content in English. It's similar to 'that' that can be left out here:

I think that she is playing the piano

I think she is playing the piano

Another possibility is that the students are attempting to form

Who is she that is playing the piano

and are trying to use a null complementizer instead of 'that' which isn't allowed in English here. As in, they are forming a phrase parallel to

I like the girl that is playing the piano (but not some other girl)

which you can rephrase without the 'that is'

I like the girl playing the piano (but not some other girl)

The students may also be simply misunderstanding the prompt: Are they supposed to ask a question about the girl's identity, or what she's doing?

Incidentally, questions in English are especially weird when they involve the subject, so I'm not surprised to see ESL students struggling with them. Among other weirdness, they don't trigger do-support:

*Who does be playing the piano

  • Actually, I think you need to start with a question form. – Lambie Jan 8 at 18:39

So in this case,

Who is she playing the piano

「playing the piano」is modifying the subject pronoun (she).

Doesn't it alone make you think this a bit strange?

Interrogative pronoun "Who", needs to take a noun, which is either the girl or the boy or whatever the object is, otherwise we wouldn't know Who really is (what).

Who (pronoun) is the girl (noun) playing the piano (modifier) denotes who is XXXXX. Who (pronoun) is she (pronoun) playing the piano (modifier) denotes who really is something X which should be described later in detail.

Anyhow, my answer is clumsy, so downvotes are welcome and give me a comment for help!


My two cents:

I've learned that there is a little difference left between using 'who,' and 'whom.' The easiest way (as a non-native speaker), I can say the students should use the girl instead of the pronoun to avoid ambiguity.

We often say,

She is buying me a doll.

Here, we have a subject, indirect object, and direct object.

If you remove the indirect object, the question could be formed as:

Who is she buying a doll?

There is me in the sentence and thus, the answer is me.

But, in your question, it becomes ambiguous.

Who is she playing the piano?

The answer could be *'she's playing her brother the piano.'*

Replacing the pronoun with a noun (girl) ends all the ambiguities. There, clearly, the subject is playing the piano...and of course for no one!

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    If one speaks the kind of English that still cares about the difference between who and whom, that should be, "Whom is she buying a doll?" (And I would probably not say even that; I'd say, "For whom is she buying a doll?") Likewise, I would never say, "She's playing her brother the piano," unless I were willing to say her brother is a piano. – David K Jan 8 at 4:41
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    @DavidK I did not put a comma and that saved her brother from being the piano. Hope you get it ;) – Maulik V Jan 8 at 6:43
  • +1, I'd add that the property you are describing, and the reason this sentence is wrong is because the it has the structure of using a ditransitive verb, but there is no transitive meaning. The fact that "play" can be a ditransitive verb (or have that meaning) makes the confusion escalate. It is still possible to decipher the meaning behind the sentence, but it takes rational effort - and most grammar is designed to avoid those situations. – Stian Yttervik Jan 8 at 9:50
  • There's no me in that sentence, but there's an omitted for at the end, whom it is. – Mazura Jan 8 at 10:40
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    This is not about who/whom. It is about using the pronoun she in the sentence. – Lambie Jan 8 at 18:39

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