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I'm a native speaker. I know this sentence is wrong (I think it's wrong, if not, please let me know), but I don't know why.

Yesterday, I read example sentences on 《HSK1》 to make sure they can all be understood by my students. And I came across these two sentences:

谁是李月?
她是谁?

It's completely acceptable to say "李月是谁?". But we can't say "谁是她?". Is there a good way to explain this situation? like by 语义特征.

5

In my opinion, 谁是她 is not wrong technically nor grammatically.

Context plays an important role. Let's see this context:

A: 是谁告诉你的?

B: 是她告诉我的? (assume A has no idea who she is and she is not present at the time)

A: 谁是她?( or 她是谁)

In this case, 谁是她 is applicable.

The above case is very rare because speaker B would make sure speaker A knows who 她 is referring to in order not to be asked to clarify. 她 should either be mentioned in the previous context or at the present(the speaker can point to 她). That's probably the reason why 谁是她 is rarely used practically.

And 谁是李月 or 李月是谁 sounds right because it's very likely that one has mentioned another person's name whist his audiences have no idea who the person is. That's why 谁是李月 could have more chances to be said than 谁是她.

So, my take to this is that 谁是她 isn't technologically wrong but there aren't many circumstances where you could use it. That's why it sounds a bit odd when you mention it alone without context.

5
  • Thank you! Just a little summary for future readers. In "谁是他?”, 他 has to refer to someone before the question is asked.
    – user29397
    Oct 18 at 10:37
  • For example: 照片中谁是她 (who is she in the picture)
    – Tang Ho
    Oct 18 at 10:38
  • To me, 李月是谁 and 谁是李月 are also not quite equivalent, and in exactly the same way. The former takes as its premise that there is a person named 李月 introduced into the scope of the conversation, but the asker does not know any details about that person and therefore asks for information about them. The latter presupposes that a group of people are in scope in the conversation, and the asker is asking for identification of a specific person within that group. This situation is common enough with names, as in @TangHo’s example, but very rare with pronouns. Oct 18 at 11:56
  • you can use a pronoun if the person's identity has been mentioned before. e.g. 你妹妹是清华出身的?这毕业照中谁是她? (use 她 instead of 你妹妹). Also, 谁是她? (who is she) is more suitable to be translated as "which one is she" in this context
    – Tang Ho
    Oct 18 at 14:56
  • 如果是这种情形,通常会问“她又是哪个(她又指的是哪个人)”
    – imkzh
    Oct 19 at 12:32
2

“谁是她?” is acceptable (although can't be used interchangeably with “她是谁?”).

Consider reading this post (in Chinese):

为什么可以说“他是谁?”而不能说“谁是他?”? - kwasglag的回答 - 知乎

You can also reference other answers for the same question and their comments (FYI, 知乎 is basically Quora but for Chinese)

0

谁是李月?= Which person is Li Yue? (I want to find Li Yue among a lot of people, e.g., in a group photo.)

李月是谁?= Who is Li Yue? (I want to know more about Li Yue.)

她是谁?= Which person is she? This is weird, but not grammatically wrong. If there are a lot of people, then who is that 'she' I would like to find?

EDIT: I just realized that it's confusing without explaining why. A possible explanation is abbreviation: (这些人中)谁是李月?= Who [among these people] is Li Yue?

Remember context matters. If you say '谁是李月?' without pointing at a group of people, people will find it weird, but understand that you mean '李月是谁?'.

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