What looked like the oldest boy marched toward platforms nine and ten.
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

In this case, ‘what’ seems to be the subject, and no doubt a person. So I’m wondering if ‘what’ can designate a person. (We can say, I think, ‘he is not what he was,’ but it’s not an example of this case.)

4 Answers 4


I'm not sure that I can give clear rule. Perhaps this: We use "who" when the pronoun stands alone. We typically use "what" or "which" when it is used as an adjective or is itself modified.

Who can say that he is not afraid?

What man can say that he is not afraid?

Which of you can say that he is not afraid?

We wouldn't say "Who man can ..." It's "what man" or "which man". But we also wouldn't say "What can say ..." if we were talking about people.

But if the qualifier precedes the pronoun, we use "who". "The man who can say ...", NOT "The man what can say ..."

In your example, there is a qualifier following the pronoun, so we use "what". An alternative way to say the same thing would be "Someone who looked like the oldest boy ..."

Now that you bring this up, I think English is rather confusing on this point. :-)

Note that if we are talking about a part of a person or some attribute of a person, we normally use "what" or "which". "Which leg did Bob lose in the accident?" "What emotion did you feel when you heard the news?" Etc.


I think in this context, "What looked like" is a phrase that is independent of the type of subject.

What looked like the greenest frog jumped up out of the water. What looked like the fluffiest cloud hung over the barn. What looked like the oldest boy marched forward.

Without prior context in place before this sentence, I'd say the speaker was referring to the oldest boy he can imagine there being. (Which doesn't make sense, because after a certain age you are no longer a boy.) Given the context in the story, he's coming from a specific set of boys, and the speaker is making a guess that he is the oldest one of the set.


What can be used in some dialect to mean who or that. The example given from the NOAD (third edition) is the following one:

The one what got to my house.

  • My NOAD 2001 (The New Oxford American Dictionary) version has no entry for the use. What version is it?
    – Listenever
    Apr 18, 2013 at 14:14
  • My NOAD is "New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc."
    – apaderno
    Apr 18, 2013 at 14:17
  • This is non-standard, colloquial, English. You'd never see it in a formal journal or the New York Times (unless as a direct quote).
    – Jim
    Apr 19, 2013 at 3:08
  • It is standard in some English dialects. Mar 24, 2016 at 4:48

I’m guessing here that what is not directly a person, and that it is only the whole expression

what looked like the oldest boy

that references a person. Sorry I don’t have a source for that, it is only a feeling about what I’ve heard or read.

  • I think you're quite right that "what" itself can't be directly identified as "the subject" (which, as you say, is the entire expression "what looked like the oldest boy"). Apr 18, 2013 at 16:50

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