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I'm taking an intro Spanish class and we learned the phrase "qué es ella de ti" to ask how someone is related to someone else. "Qué" is the equivalent of "what". I was confused about why you wouldn't use the equivalent of "who"... I considered what would be appropriate in English but I'm still confused. I guess "what" makes sense since you're actually talking about the relationship and not directly the person. However, because a person is involved I think "who" sounds more natural; to me, this seems especially true in past tense. "What" also makes sense because the reply "it is complicated" seems to fit.

Consider:

(Looking at a photo) Who is she to you? She is my grandmother|friend. What is she to you? She is my grandmother|friend.

(In reference to a dead person) Who was she to you? She was my grandmother|friend. What was she to you? She was my grandmother|friend.

Even if it is an awkward way to ask the question, which is correct and why? Not too sure how to tag this question.

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    Taking one step away from the details, I'd like to note that in English people say "That's my grandmother", which seems all the more arbitrary.
    – m.a.a.
    Nov 29, 2016 at 23:03
  • @m.a.a. - That in this context will refer to a previously unacknowledged person (i.e. that (person you do not recognise; stranger) is my grandmother.
    – Dan
    Nov 30, 2016 at 0:12
  • I'm afraid 'Even if it is an awkward way to ask the question, which is correct[?]' makes the common error that grammaticality is all. Idiomaticity and sounding natural are possibly even more important (Grice's maxim of manner; Orwell's sixth law). Apr 15, 2022 at 10:47
  • @EdwinAshworth, the question does not use the terms grammar, grammatical or anything similar. What exactly are you objecting to? (If it is the tag, why comment on it instead of just editing it out?)
    – jsw29
    Apr 15, 2022 at 15:34
  • @jsw29 ELU looks at (and yes, appraises) what is acceptable usage. OP asks the overarching question '[W]hich is correct ...?' and correctness involves more than being grammatical. 'I had a powerful gin and tonic before using my strong new computer for the first time' is perfectly grammatical, far more specious than Chomsky's example, yet would be marked incorrect in an advanced English exam. ELU uses questions as vehicles to examine good practice. Apr 15, 2022 at 16:02

1 Answer 1

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'What...' is more common than 'Who...'

What in this context does not refer directly to her. It refers to the basis or reason for your knowing each other. The question asks what it is that she does that results in your knowing each other (e.g. she goes to the same swimming pool as me, she is my accountant...).

Who refers to her directly. The question asks her relationship to you (e.g. sister, mother, mother's friend, best friend, class mate...).

Clearly, there can be some overlap. But, taking your first example...

Who is she to you? She is my grandmother.

What is she to you? One of the most important people in my life.

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  • "What's Hecuba to him..." William Shakespeare, Hamlet
    – John Feltz
    Nov 30, 2016 at 0:25
  • I'd say "What is she to you?" asks more about the importance of the connection/relation, mirroring "What is that to you?" ("It is not important that you know"). More natural would be "Is she a relative of yours?" Apr 15, 2022 at 10:44

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