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I teach ELL students and have found conflicting information with respect to "Who" vs "What"

Please help determine if one or both of these statements are correct:

A) Who are they? They're musicians. B) What are they? They're musicians.

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  • Related question about who vs. what for professions: ell.stackexchange.com/q/81826
    – ColleenV
    May 4, 2016 at 13:18
  • Interrogatory who can inquire about identity, status, role, purpose, or occupation. Interrogatory what, used of persons, inquires about status, role, purpose, or occupation. You could ask at a wedding, say: "Who are they?" while looking across the room at a group of people, and be told, "They're the musicians."
    – TimR
    May 4, 2016 at 14:39

2 Answers 2

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"Who" is used when asking the identify of people. "What" is used when asking the identity of an object, or an attribute of a person.

Question: "Who is your new girlfriend?" Answer: "Sally Jones."

Question: "What is that black thing on your desk?" Answer: "That's my new electronic transmogrifier."

Question: "What is Bob's hair color?" Answer: "Brown."

If you ask, "What is [person]?", as in, "What is George?", you are asking for some attribute or status of the person, and what you want should be clear from the context. If you just walked up to someone and began a conversation by asking, "What is George?", they would likely ask what you meant or what you were talking about. But if, for example, you were discussing jobs within the company, and you said that Mary was an accountant and Fred was an engineer, and then you asked, "What is George?", this would be understood to mean, "What is George's job title?" Or if you were at a wedding and you said that Mary was a bridesmaid and Fred was the best man, and then you asked, "What is George?", you would be understand to be asking his role in the wedding. Etc.

In your example, if we were talking about occupations in general, or about people's roles in some event, and you asked, "What are they?" -- presumably in some way making clear who "they" are, pointing to a group of people, or after having mentioned their names, or whatever -- the other person could reply, "They are musicians", identifying their role.

If you asked, "Who are they?", an answer of "They are musicians" would not technically be responsive. "Who" calls for identification of people, and "musician" is a description, not an identification. "They are Harry and Diane" would be a meaningful answer. "They are the musicians" would also make sense. That is, they are the people who are or will be performing the music. Of course in real life, if someone said, "They are musicians" you would understand what they mean, so while technically not a logical answer to the question, it's not like you'd be confused.

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Either can be safely asked unless you do mean what they actually do for a living - then the question should be put "What are they?"

The situation may be that among the persons involved, there are artists, singers and musicians, no matter whether they are amateurs or professionals. Then the question "Who are they?" (the group of people sitting at the table over there, for example) would be appropriate as well.

You didn't ask what the answers to the questions might be, but should you have asked, there might be different ones, which is offtopic, as this question was formulated.

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