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For the statement:

"Obama is the president of the United States."

Which of these questions is considered the most correct?

Who is Obama?

What is Obama?

Basically, my question revolves around whether the choice for 'who' or 'what' depends on 'Obama' or 'the president of the United States'.

  • Question: "If Joe Biden is Vice President, then what is Obama?" Answer: "Obama is the President." I'm not saying the "answer" is (necessarily) grammatically correct, but it would be perfectly fine in normal conversation, yes? – rhetorician Jan 26 '16 at 18:34
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    This is an excellent question, and a good thinking exercise. The only reason I wouldn't use "what" to evoke that particular answer is because "what" makes it seem like Obama is being objectified, which of course is not pleasant. – Dog Lover Jan 27 '16 at 22:54
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In journalism, the common questions to be answered about a subject one is writing about are: Who, When, What, Where and So What. That should answer the question. Who and what can be seen as subsets of that basic rule of thumb. Of course, one could answer the question other ways, to wit: "What are you?" I am a proofreader. I am a beer drinker. I am an ankle biter. "Who are you" I am my father's son. I am a stranger in these parts. I am the cat's pajamas.

The philosophical answer, however, would be: "What" asks the question in terms of an object. And "who" asks the question in terms of the subject. Something we hear less and less about in these days of everything being about things being in one's DNA. (How does one locate talent in genes, anyway?)

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In general, "Who is Obama" is an opened-ended question that can be answered many ways, and only one is "President of the United States".

"What is Obama" is somewhat incomplete. "What is Obama's position?" is asking about "the President of the United States".

If someone states "Obama is a Martian", you may colloquially ask "What is Obama?" in reference is to "Martian". This usage is typically for clarification on a statement, not an open-ended inquiry. Therefore, it depends on context which may not be explicit.

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Forgive for seeming a buffoon...But obviously "Who."

  • Question: "If Joe Biden is Vice President, then what is Obama?" Answer: "Obama is the President." I'm not saying the "answer" is (necessarily) grammatically correct, but it would be perfectly fine in normal conversation, yes? Oh, and I'm sure you're not a buffoon! Don – rhetorician Jan 26 '16 at 18:36

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