Difference Wiki

Who vs. What: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on November 2, 2023
"Who" refers to persons; "what" refers to things or ideas.

Key Differences

"Who" is a pronoun used to ask about or refer to people. It often serves to inquire about the identity or the nature of a person. "What," on the other hand, is used to refer to things or ideas. It is a pronoun that asks for information specifying something.
When someone uses "who," they are usually seeking information about an individual or a group of people. For example, "Who won the game?" asks for the identity of the winner, who is presumed to be a person or a team. "What," however, would be used in a broader context, such as "What was the score?" which requests information that is not about a person.
The word "who" can also imply a search for a role or relationship, as in "Who is the CEO of the company?" It is always about linking a person to an identity or function. Conversely, "what" can be used to inquire about the nature or category of something, like in "What type of phone do you have?" where the inquiry is about an object, not a person.
In essence, "who" attributes actions or characteristics to people, while "what" is about things and can be about actions in a more abstract sense. If you ask "Who spoke?" you expect the name of a person. If you ask "What was said?" you are looking for the content of the speech, not the speaker.
"Who" can be subjective (who wants ice cream?), objective (whom did you call?), or possessive (whose coat is this?). "What," however, does not change form and is always used to ask about things or information, such as "What are your plans for today?"

Comparison Chart


People only.
Things, ideas, actions.


Identifies or inquires about persons.
Asks for information or specifies something.

Sentence Role

Subject or object referring to people.
Subject or object referring to non-people.

Grammatical Number

Can refer to singular or plural.
Can refer to singular or plural.

Example Question

"Who is your friend?"
"What is your favorite book?"

Who and What Definitions


Asks for the subject in a sentence concerning people.
Who wants pizza?


Used to inquire about the nature or identity of something.
What is this device used for?


Used to inquire about the identity of a person.
Who wrote this poem?


Asks for the object or subject in a sentence concerning non-people.
What is the capital of France?


Pronoun used to ask about people.
Who is at the door?


Requests specification or information.
What kind of music do you like?


Determines the relationship or role of a person.
Who is the president of the club?


Pronoun used to ask about things or information.
What is your name?


Pronoun replacing people previously mentioned.
I know who stole the cookies.


Used to introduce a clause or phrase.
I wonder what he will do next.


(interrogative) What person or people; which person or people; asks for the identity of someone; used in a direct or indirect question.
Who is that? (direct question)
I don't know who it is. (indirect question)


Which one or ones of several or many
What college are you attending? You should know what musical that song is from.


(relative) Introduces a relative clause having a human antecedent.


They soon repaired what damage had been done.


Can 'who' and 'what' be used interchangeably?

No, 'who' is specific to people while 'what' is used for objects, concepts, or actions.

How does 'who' function in a sentence?

'Who' functions as a pronoun representing people, either as a subject or an object.

Is 'who' used in questions only?

While often used in questions, 'who' can also be used in statements and relative clauses.

Can 'what' start a question and a statement?

Yes, 'what' can start both questions and statements.

How do you respond to a question starting with 'who'?

You respond with the name of a person or people involved.

What is the difference between 'who' and 'what'?

'Who' refers to persons, and 'what' refers to things, ideas, or actions.

Can 'what' refer to a person?

Generally, no. 'What' is not used to refer to a person.

In what scenarios is 'what' the appropriate pronoun to use?

Use 'what' when referring to objects, events, or concepts, not people.

Are there any exceptions to using 'who' only for people?

Typically, no. 'Who' is always used to refer to human beings.

What does 'what' often signify in a question?

'What' signifies a request for information or specifics about something.

Can 'what' be used to ask about a person's profession?

No, 'who' is used for asking about professions, as in "Who is a doctor?"

Does 'what' have a different form when used in different cases?

No, 'what' remains the same in all cases.

Do 'who' and 'what' change forms depending on the case?

'Who' can change to 'whom' or 'whose' for object or possessive cases; 'what' does not change.

What is the possessive form of 'who'?

The possessive form of 'who' is 'whose.'

Can 'what' imply a choice from a range of options?

Yes, 'what' can imply selection, as in "What flavor do you want?"

Can 'who' be used for animals?

It's uncommon but can be used anthropomorphically, especially for pets.

Can 'who' and 'what' be used in indirect questions?

Yes, both can be used in indirect questions, as in "I asked who was calling" and "I wondered what was for dinner."

What type of pronoun is 'who'?

'Who' is an interrogative pronoun when asking questions and a relative pronoun in clauses.

Is 'who' used for singular or plural?

'Who' can be used for both singular and plural references to people.

How do you respond to a question starting with 'what'?

You provide the requested information or name of a thing or concept.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

Trending Comparisons

Popular Comparisons

New Comparisons