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Imagine having to speak about a profession that no longer exits or is no longer called what it used to be (e.g. "beadsman," "friar," "apothecary"). The audience knows that the talk is about a dead profession, but they don't know yet what it is exactly and whether it was performed by a man or woman. Now, you want to ask them a question to ease them into the subject. The question asks if any of the audience knows about the profession.

Do you ask:

a. Does anyone know what an "apothecary" is?

b. Does anyone know who an "apothecary" is?

"What" suggests that "apothecary" could be something not someone, which may throw the audience out of balance (remember that they have very little background; they can get easily confused)

And

"Who" sounds as if I were asking about his identity or something

Please help.

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    Who asks for the identity of a specific person; I think most people would treat any profession, whether contemporary or obsolete, as a what: "What's a stockbroker? What's a programmer?", but "Who's your stockbroker? Who was the lead programmer on this app?" – StoneyB Feb 18 '16 at 12:29
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    As @StoneyB says, a profession or occupation is inanimate, whereas the person doing it is animate. – Peter Feb 18 '16 at 12:33
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A profession is a thing, not a person.

 Q. What is a carpenter? 
 A. A person who works with wood.

 Q. Who is the carpenter?
 A. Dave.

By the way, a friar is neither a profession nor obsolete. A friar is a member of a mendicant religious order (Franciscans, for example) and they still exist today. A friar could practice many different professions.

  • Thank you for the answer. And many thanks for the additional comment. – asef Feb 20 '16 at 17:20
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If I wanted to ease into a conversation where we'd discuss an obscure profession, I might ask:

Does anyone know what an apothecary does?

This is a rather common way of wording such a question, as was done in a series of articles published by The Guardian:

If you are absolutely sure the career is obsolete, I suppose you could change the question to the past tense, if you liked that better:

Does anyone know what a haruspex did?

  • Thank you, BUT is this wrong: "Does anyone know what an apothecary?" – asef Feb 20 '16 at 3:59
  • @asef - Yes, that's wrong. It needs a verb; e.g.: "Does anyone know what an apothecary is?" or, "Does anyone know what an apothecary does?" If you wanted to end with the word apothecary, you could ask: "Does anyone know anything about apothecaries?" – J.R. Feb 20 '16 at 12:41
  • Thank you. The missing verb was an oversight. Apologies. – asef Feb 20 '16 at 17:20

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