Submitted by Magician Bob  •  October 31, 2012

“who she was” vs. “what she was”

I have a question to ask of you. A professor of English Usage said the next expression is incorrect:

(a) She is not what she was ten years ago.

He insisted that this sentence should be corrected like:

(b) She is not who she was ten years ago.

In my opinion, both sentences are correct but there is some difference between them:

(a) implies that she changed her habit or attitude, or lost her physical strength etc.,

but (b) implies that she became ill and lost her physical ability etc.

Do you agree with my opinion? I examined the following examples:

who he was

(1) ‘I believe he was a massive influence on the pitch when we played against them. He was United’s football brain, he was highly motivated and he was a quality player. At 34 he is not what he was in central midfield aged 28. But he is still a top Premier League player and a loss for United.’ — The Independent (London, England), November 19, 2005

(2) Mr Wolff added: “Murdoch is an 80-year-old man. He obviously is not what he was five years ago. He is in the midst of an enormous legal situation and lawyers have taken over. He is under an emotional strain as great as any in his life. This is incredibly painful for him.” — The Evening Standard (London, England), February 17, 2012

what he was

(1) All this is understandable. Arenas is returning from an interminable rehabilitation process. He is not who he was. And getting back to who he was will not be easy on him or his teammates, not when he has the ball in his hands so much of the time. — The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 23, 2009

 (2) Parkinson’s disease has kidnapped my wife. It is in the process of killing her. I hug and kiss what is left of her, hang photographs of the old, strong Milly throughout the house, and talk to her. We hold hands. We make love. But she is not who she was. She cannot walk, and now she can barely speak. She is being carried into an abyss, and I am helpless to rescue her. — Morton Kondracke, Saving Milly: Love, Politics, and Parkinson’s Disease (2001) p. xix

I am looking forward to your comment on this!!!

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Incidentally, my search brought up another interesting use - "He liked her for what she was, not for who she was" - I presume "what" here refers to attributes, as porsche suggests, and "who" refers to her social position.

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I would agree with Will. Let me add that I would reserve 'who' only for times when identity is the issue. 'What' would be used for attributes, etc. To me, ...not who she was... means she underwent some kind of personality change, at least metaphorically, or maybe entered the witness protection program. Another way of looking at it is to ask "who are you?". I'm Porsche..."What are you?" I'm a doctor, a lawyer, a human being...

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Thank you very much for your valuable comments! Which expression do you tend to use when someone promoted to vice president of the company?

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I think your professor has a bit of a problem seeing the wood for the trees. Presumably all he is seeing is "she", and therefore thinks it must be "who".

As to whether to use one or the other, I'm not sure there is any difference, except to say that "what" seems to be more common. I can't see there's a great difference between "losing physical strength" and "losing physical ability", for example, and I would have thought that "what" could have been used equally as well in the two illness examples. In all the examples they really mean "he/she is not the (same) person he/she was".

I tried a comparative search on Ngram, but it's difficult to narrow the search down to exactly your examples. However, a standard Google search brings up some eight million hits for "she's not what she was" and just over two and a half million for "she's not who she was." Unfortunately though, there's a bit of noise, as you get things like "she's not what she was meant to be".

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