English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Yesterday I was going through my son's books and at one place it was written

I have a long neck, I have spots on my body — what am I?

I thought it should have been

I have a long neck, I have spots on my body — who am I?

Can somebody please clarify which one is correct?

share|improve this question
There’s no reason it should be ‘who’—the answer might, for example, be a Somersby Wild Cactus bottle, which is not a person. (Obviously, the answer is a giraffe; but using ‘what’ simply gives a wider scope of options) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 19 '13 at 10:28
Why do you think it should be who? – user57234 Jul 19 '13 at 10:42
"Who" would suggest that the answer should be a person, not an animal. – TrevorD Jul 19 '13 at 10:49
Is this question really "Are animals considered people?" ? – Mitch Jul 19 '13 at 12:41
up vote 3 down vote accepted

If who is used, the scope of the answer gets reduces to a specific person in particular. Otherwise it has wider scope. So what will be the proper answer.

share|improve this answer

If the question is asking for a specific individual, usually someone or something that can be named, then "who" is appropriate. It often implies a human specific individual, but named animals could also suffice.

If the question is asking for a more general answer, what is more appropriate.

Example: Who ate the pie? Megan did. Spot the dog did. That elephant over there did it!

Example: What ate the pie? A person. A dog. Probably some elephant.

share|improve this answer

I think there are actually a few reasons who is not the better choice:

  1. As Akshat and Janus Bahs Jacquet both pointed out, you can leave the options more open by not removing objects that might also meet the definition.
  2. By using who, there is general a specific who (Him, Tom, the elephant in the room). It would awkward grammatically to have a conversation: "Who ate my petunias?" and the response "An elephant". Who expects a specific body, in general.

Who could work in your example, but I think what is the better word choice.

share|improve this answer
-1 "Who" could not work! As @Akshat says, using "who" indicates that you are expecting the answer to be a person - not an animal. – TrevorD Jul 19 '13 at 12:29
@TrevorD "Who ate my homework? Spot the dog did." is correct and is for an animal not a person. – AthomSfere Jul 19 '13 at 15:54
If you anthropomorphise an animal enough to enable it to use a first-person pronoun (i.e., give it speech), them you anthropomorphise it enough to be referable to as ‘who’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 '13 at 0:41
@JanusBahsJacquet but Spot ate the homework is not anthropomorphizing. Similarly, if you left your dinner in a room of 4 different animals Lets say a giraffe, a dog, a cat and an elephant and you were asked to hypothesize: a) Who ate the dinner vs b)What at the dinner... – AthomSfere Jul 20 '13 at 1:43
My comment was in reply to Trevor’s statement that ‘who’ would not work. If I left my dinner to vanish in a room with four animals, I would hypothesise, “Who ate my dinner?” as well. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 '13 at 8:36

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.