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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?

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    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
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    Why do you think it should be who? – user57234 Jul 19 '13 at 10:42
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    "Who" would suggest that the answer should be a person, not an animal. – TrevorD Jul 19 '13 at 10:49
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    Is this question really "Are animals considered people?" ? – Mitch Jul 19 '13 at 12:41
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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.

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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.

  • -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
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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.

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The question presupposes a context in which animals are anthropomorphised. Whether one will use who or what depends on how far that anthropomorphising is supposed to go. If one takes it to go all the way, and puts oneself in a fictional world in which animals think and speak like human beings and so ask such questions about themselves, one may want to use who. One the other hand, if the anthropomorphising is no more than a stylistic device for posing questions that test children’s knowledge about animals, then what is appropriate. The authors of the book in question probably intended the latter, i.e. they wanted to pose the question ‘What species of animals is characterised by a long neck and spots?’ in manner that they hoped would be lively.

(This is intended to answer the specific question posed by the OP. The other answers on this page seem to be directed at the much more general question posed in the heading.)

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In English, the pronoun who is normally reserved for people.

Who is your boss?
Who do you think you are?

  Who am I?
  Can I condemn this man to slavery?
  Pretend I do not feel his agony
  This innocent who bears my face
  Who goes to judgement in my place
  …
  Who am I?
  Who am I?
  I am Jean Valjean!

In the children's guessing game, "What am I?", the answer could be the name of an animal, food, country, building or any inanimate object.

  What am I?
  I am multi-coloured.
  I appear after a storm.
  People always point at me.
  Everyone takes my picture.
  Legend says there is gold at the bottom of me.

Source: https://www.englishclub.com/kids/what-am-i-h4.htm

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