Explain why "Who is she playing the piano?" is incorrect



A teacher asked me this question and I am having a hard time finding a simple way to explain it for her to share with her students. I`m looking for the easiest way to explain it to her because she teaches Junior High School English in Japan.

The students were given a picture prompt and expected to answer with,

"Who is the girl playing the piano?"

Many of the students wrote,

"Who is she playing the piano?"

How would I explain, in a very simple way, why you cannot use she here?


Posted 2019-01-08T00:55:20.903

Reputation: 621

4You've selected an incorrect answer (a good pointer is that another answer has more votes). Personal pronouns (I, you he, she it, we ...) are not like normal nouns. We cannot use determiners like all, some, many with them. We cannot (usually) put adjectives before them. We cannot freely use participle clauses to modify them (that is what is happening in your example). This has nothing to do with commas. You are being fed false information by someone who is guessing the answer. Don't let your teacher friend give fake news to your student. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-09T23:54:07.177

3I would caution that in an exercise like this, the proper criterion is not merely whether you can or cannot use a particular word. It is more useful at this level of instruction to teach the students to speak and write in ways that are in common use and promote good communication, and to avoid obscure constructions even if they are technically correct. – David K – 2019-01-10T03:34:55.817

@DavidK - Thank you :) I appreciate everyone`s responses (very much) but I was looking for a simple answer for that very reason, in the context of these students being English language learners in a foreign country. The students are Junior High School (8th) grade students who are learning English to pass their High School exams. The answers for the exams are quite specific. I want to help but, it is an education itself, learning how English is taught in different countries...how they approach it, translate it, and structure it against their own. – Hojo – 2019-01-10T23:41:08.663

@DavidK - You are absolutely correct about the type of instruction the teachers are looking for. It has been very enlightening though to this teacher, the types of responses given. Thank you for your observation. – Hojo – 2019-01-10T23:44:18.680

1@Hojo Note that the Japanese language frequently modifies pronouns with premodifying adjectival and verbal clauses, so much so that it is often debated whether Japanese really does have a pronoun class separate from its noun class. ピアノを弾く私 (lit. piano-playing I/me) is perfectly valid as a phrase in standard and colloquial Japanese. – Michaelyus – 2019-01-11T14:55:57.550

How can we distinguish the OP case from That's me playing the piano or Who is she cutting in like that!? ? – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2019-01-11T18:25:00.500

In "That's me playing the piano", "me" is in the objective case. "That's her playing the piano" works while "that's she playing the piano" fails. "Who is she cutting in like that?" is ambiguous. I can't begin analyzing it without first knowing what it's supposed to mean. One possibility is that it's missing a parenthetical comma. – Gary Botnovcan – 2019-01-12T13:21:37.487



You can use she, if you pause to make the meaning clear:

Who is she, playing the piano?

Without the pause, this is a kind of "garden path" sentence, because it leads you to a wrong expectation about how the sentence will end, creating a cognitive dissonance.

Once you hear "who is she playing..." you expect the sentence to end with something like "at tennis on Tuesday?", and the question to be about who she is playing against, rather than who she is to begin with.


As mentioned in comments, a more common way to express this in everyday speech would be

Who is that playing the piano?

However, I don't believe it would be fair to mark a student wrong for using she.

The Photon

Posted 2019-01-08T00:55:20.903

Reputation: 8 487

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– snailplane – 2019-01-11T14:42:58.677

Nice answer, but this doesn't answer the OP's question (regardless of whether they selected it or not!) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-11T23:34:34.453

@Araucaria, when a question is based on a false premise, a good answer is to explain why the premise is false. How would you answer "Why is 2 + 2 = 5?" – The Photon – 2019-01-11T23:50:15.180

2@ThePhoton The students wrote ungrammatical sentences. There is no pause indicated in their prompt, we must assume. There's no wrong premise here at all. :( They have a problem. Someone came here to help them out. This answer doesn't do that. It's just clever about when the wrong answer could be grammatical - if it was changed somewhat. Not an answer. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-11T23:54:22.027

1To put it another way, @ThePhoton, we haven't seen the picture or read the prompt, but we know what one correct response is: "Who is the girl playing the piano?" Unless you mean to say that the response "Who is she, playing the piano?" is a grammatically valid question *with practically the same meaning*, you're responding to something other than the point of the original post. – Gary Botnovcan – 2019-01-12T00:31:22.957


Personal pronouns don't want to be directly modified, especially in the subjective case.

We naturally say things like "That tall girl is in my class" and "The girl playing piano is very good". Nouns like "girl" work well with adjectives and participial phrases.

We don't naturally say things like "That tall she is in my class" or "She playing piano is very good". The pronoun "she" acts more like a complete and finished noun phrase than a simple noun. It doesn't play nicely with things like adjectives and participial phrases.

Gary Botnovcan

Posted 2019-01-08T00:55:20.903

Reputation: 12 044

As a side note, Shakespeare gets away with a similar weird usage in the last lines of Sonnet 130: "And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare | As any she belied with false compare." – barbecue – 2019-01-08T22:05:25.487

5This is the only answer that actually answers the question, I believe. +1. Other answers seem to focus on the plausible semantics of the given sentence, not on the syntax of the intended meaning. – justhalf – 2019-01-08T22:28:57.097

That's true enough, @Barbecue, and it's reason enough to avoid saying that we never modify subjective personal pronouns. However, Shakespeare's work differs from what those junior high students are trying to do in two important ways. He wrote poetry in a now-obsolete dialect. They're writing simple contemporary prose. – Gary Botnovcan – 2019-01-08T23:28:54.353

3+1, though it's a bit of an oversimplification; something like "she who is playing the piano" or "she of the long hair" is grammatical but literary, whereas the OP's *"she playing the piano" is out-and-out ungrammatical. – ruakh – 2019-01-09T01:44:50.770

1@barbecue: I don't understand your comment. I don't see any similarity between the OP's example and your Shakespeare example. Which part/aspect of it strikes you as "a similar weird usage"? – ruakh – 2019-01-09T01:46:09.677

1Well, @Ruakh, does it help to compare "as rare as any mistress belied with false compare" to "as good as the girl playing the piano", especially after substituting "she" for both "mistress" and "the girl"? I think that Barbecue and I read that sonnet's last line in the same way. – Gary Botnovcan – 2019-01-09T15:14:34.377

@GaryBotnovcan: I see, thanks. My bad; I should have Googled the context before asking. Even so . . . "she" as a common noun is indeed weird (except in a predicate nominative; "Is your teacher a 'he' or a 'she'?" is not too unusual), but still quite distinct from the OP's example (which was not "the she playing the piano"). But it's a good general reminder that skilled native speakers can often get away with constructions that would sound like ridiculous errors if a learner tried them. :-/ – ruakh – 2019-01-09T17:14:27.357

Now you get it. It would be an oversimplification to say that "Who is she playing the piano?" is wrong. It's a reasonable simplification to say that it's weird, unnatural and often confusing to treat an inflected pronoun in that way. – Gary Botnovcan – 2019-01-09T17:33:08.133

This answer is wrong too. Subjective case?? – Lambie – 2019-01-10T00:07:32.577

@Lambie: Yes, "subjective case".

– ruakh – 2019-01-10T00:14:37.443

I have to wonder, @Lambie, whether you've ever encountered a sentence like "Drunk me did something that sober me can't remember." It's worth noting that "drunk me" and "sober me" are subjects, but in the objective case. Why don't we encounter "drunk I" and "sober I"? – Gary Botnovcan – 2019-01-10T01:48:37.590

@GaryBotnovcan I have "encountered" all manner of expression and writing. The point here is being missed. "Who is she, playing the piano?" is fine. Let's me sure we find all sorts of post-advanced grammar usages to really confuse the OP. – Lambie – 2019-01-10T15:39:49.613

2Fine, maybe. Unrelated to the OP, almost certainly. You're presenting the participial phrase as a parenthetical, and probably supplemental, modifier. The question is how to explain why it fails as a direct modifier. It fails because personal pronouns, especially in the subjective case, don't typically work that way. Things like "tall she" and "she playing the piano" aren't coherent phrases. – Gary Botnovcan – 2019-01-10T16:31:41.810

+1 (Your answers are good, but I think you need to unpack them more for people to understand them easily). – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-12T00:26:55.593

1You must be right, @Araucaria. I'll need to figure out how to manage that. I just can't spot where I've been dense or confusing. – Gary Botnovcan – 2019-01-12T00:40:08.400

@GaryBotnovcan I think examples set out from the bodyof your text would be helpful. And then explicit descriptions of how they fit your points, maybe. :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-12T00:55:01.340

@GaryBotnovcan PS, I do know I owe you an answer. As soon as stuff settles here, I'll honour my debt! :) Until then, I hope you don't mind if I slip in an easy speedy answer here or there ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-12T00:55:22.460

Well, there's a blow to my arrogance. I thought my outstanding question over there was so tricky, subtle and subversive that you were in the middle of re-writing your entire framework just to handle it. But, seriously, of course I don't mind. It's just easier to be patient when I'm certain I've not been forgotten ;) – Gary Botnovcan – 2019-01-12T01:00:59.487

@GaryBotnovcan Your question requires a careful and well explained answer, and I don't want to stuff it up! I was learning a lot just by trying to set it to "paper" and then checking whether what I was saying was considered correct by other linguists. I'll do it properly when my house-moving and uni emergencies are over. I really hope that will be very soon, but who knows ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-12T01:08:14.277

And here I though I was joking about your testing every weight-bearing member of your framework, just to answer li'l ol' foolish me. Well, good luck with the move and with school. I know, real life can have an unfortunate habit of being . . . ugh, too real. Meanwhile I'll consider our near-identical answers here while I ponder repackaging approaches.

– Gary Botnovcan – 2019-01-12T01:47:12.950


The answers by The Photon and Gary Potnovcan explain it well, in my opinion, but I'd like to include and addendum focusing on the fact that you're teaching Japanese students.

English pronouns versus Japanese "pronouns"

Let me start quoting Wikipedia:

In linguistics, generativists and other structuralists suggest that the Japanese language does not have pronouns as such, since, unlike pronouns in most other languages that have them, these words are syntactically and morphologically identical to nouns.

So first of all, the confusion of the students is completely understandable because in Japanese the "pronouns" work exactly as nouns. The word the students were probably thinking of is 彼女 (kanojo), which is often translated as "she", but can simply mean "the woman" (excluding the speaker and the person being spoken to). In other words, 彼女 can literally be translated as "the girl" as well.

That said, I believe that, from a teaching perspective, this is a great opportunity to insist on the differences between English pronouns and Japanese "pronouns". Context is a very strong thing in Japanese, almost everything can be omitted and context will do its work. English on the other hand is not: for example, every English clause must have a subject. When there isn't a useful one, we put an "it" there. This is very odd for japanese English learners.

So, what exactly is a pronoun? I am not a linguist, but I'll try: "a pronoun is a word that refers to some other noun that was mentioned before, or is about to be mentioned, or can be inferred by context". If this is not strictly correct, recall that beginners are being taught here so minor nitpicks can be postponed.

In Japanese, we don't use anything like the above definition of pronoun, context itself works already. But in English, we need a word. English sentences have structures much more "solid". Instead of simply omitting everything that can be inferred, as is done in Japanese, in English those things are replaced by pronouns.

So, if we wanted to ask

Who is the girl that I am pointing to right now?

In Japanese we can let context do its work by asking


which is literally just "who?", while in English we need to follow the structural boilerplate which requires a verb and at least a pronoun:

Who is she?

and here "she" is the word that carries the context inside it.

Hopefully this will help clearing things up with the students that might be thinking that she and the girl are exactly the same thing.

Pedro A

Posted 2019-01-08T00:55:20.903

Reputation: 517

Well, both she and the girl probably are the same (かのじょ) :o) – Will Crawford – 2019-01-09T17:24:36.200

Note that in formal English, you can use "she" in all cases in which you'd use "the girl" – at least, in my experience. – wizzwizz4 – 2019-01-10T22:09:09.317

4@wizzwizz4: You can say "That's the girl I saw yesterday", but I don't think you can say *"That's she I saw yesterday." – sumelic – 2019-01-11T02:06:13.730

@sumelic Maybe it's dialectical then. – wizzwizz4 – 2019-01-11T07:35:59.397

@wizzwizz4 I don't think so, though. It's grammatical. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-12T00:11:21.777


I would explain it very simply: a pronoun is supposed to refer clearly to a noun, usually one that precedes the pronoun. The meaning of "pronoun" is something that takes the place of a noun.

An interrogative pronoun will normally not be preceded by a noun because of the way questions are formed in English, but the expectation is that the noun being referred to will follow the pronoun quickly. In the sentence recommended against, there is no noun at all for either "she" or "who."

Thus, the sentence is awkward and not highly idiomatic. I do not think it is ungrammatical, but it is hard to follow. It still would be a bit odd, but much clearer to say "Who is she that is playing the piano." Now the entire clause will be heard as a substitute for a specific noun.

Jeff Morrow

Posted 2019-01-08T00:55:20.903

Reputation: 19 401

2I like this answer because a sequence like "Who is this annoying idiot at the altar? Who is he ruining my wedding??" seems more natural than the last sentence on its own, without reference. Btw, it's perhaps even a common rhetorical figure for arrogantly addressing somebody in the third person: "Who is he disturbing my dinner?" – Peter - Reinstate Monica – 2019-01-10T05:24:03.833

@PeterA.Schneider Hold on a minute, though. Where's the quickly following noun in "who disappeared?". – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-12T00:20:42.623

Interrogative pronouns never have the noun they are referring to following them quickly, because the noun phrases they are referring to are represented by a gap in the following clause. They are compulsorily missing!!! – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-12T00:23:52.190

@Auracana I see. According to you, the "who" in Who is the girl playing the piano" is not an interrogative pronoun? Interesting viewpoint. – Jeff Morrow – 2019-01-12T00:26:52.270

@JeffMorrow Of course it's a pronoun, but your claim that "the expectation is that the noun being referred to will follow the pronoun quickly" isn't accurate. Far from it :( – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-13T00:10:23.090

I was responding to your comment (since deleted) that the "who" in "who is she" was not an interrogative pronoun but a relative pronoun. The normal expectation is that "who is" will be followed by something more descriptive than a pronoun. – Jeff Morrow – 2019-01-13T02:10:17.883



The solution is the one provided by the OP

"Who is the girl playing the piano?"

If you want to know why using "she" in place of "the girl" is mistaken, see @Pedro A and @Gary Botnovcan's answers. But if someone is interested to see how "she" can fit into a grammatical sentence, see my answer below.

How would I explain, in a very simple way, why you cannot use she here?

You can use “she” but the meaning will be different.

  1. Who is he fighting? (correct and most common in speech)
    Whom is he fighting? (formal)
    Who is the person he is fighting against?

  2. Who is she talking to?
    To whom is she talking?
    Who is the person (or people) she is talking to?

  3. Who are they going to compete with?
    With whom are they going to compete?
    Who is the person (or people) they are going to compete with?

  4. Who is she playing the piano? (odd sounding)
    To fix this question you need a preposition.

  5. a) Who is she playing the piano with?
    b) With whom is she playing the piano? (very formal and rarely heard in speech)
    c) Who is she playing the piano to?
    d) To whom is she playing the piano?
    e) Who is she playing for?
    f) For whom is she playing the piano?

Sentences b), d) and f) are a very formal way of asking a question and rarely heard or used in speech today but for some prescriptivists, the pronoun whom, which refers to the object of a preposition, is considered to be the only grammatically correct choice. Well, I'm sorry, they are sadly mistaken.

Mari-Lou A

Posted 2019-01-08T00:55:20.903

Reputation: 19 962

2This seems the only accurate answer of the bunch. In the questionable sentence, by default "she" refers to the object, not the subject. It's not ambiguous at all -- it's just weird in the given context. – Andrew – 2019-01-08T04:59:59.640

a and b presume two are playing piano, so inaccurate. There's only one female player. c and d also don't ask the proper question - they ask who is listening - the question involves who the player is. – Tim – 2019-01-08T08:54:22.900

1@Tim The OP already knows that the "correct" solution is *"Who is the girl playing the piano?", so no point in me repeating that. My answer shows (hopefully) how the student's sentence (Who is she playing the piano?*) could be made perfectly grammatical. I did, however, also warned that the meaning would change. I'm not saying the meanings are identical to the OP's. – Mari-Lou A – 2019-01-08T09:00:28.080

1I would not suggest using "who" as object for explaining why OP's sentences work. "who" is subject (in some dialects also objects), "whom" is object, and this does not matter here at all. – rexkogitans – 2019-01-08T10:08:35.863

1And then there is sentence (e): Who is she playing the piano for? @Tim - No, there needn’t be two at the piano. “Who did Paul McCartney play guitar with?” (Answer: With John, George, and Ringo.) – J.R. – 2019-01-08T13:25:19.023

1-1 I do not consider the use of "whom" to be "very formal" at all. I just consider it to be correct. – Keeta - reinstate Monica – 2019-01-08T13:55:00.157

@J.R. Whom did Paul McCartney play guitar with - not "who" – rexkogitans – 2019-01-08T14:43:29.607

5@rexkogitans the vast majority of native speakers, British, Australians and Americans will choose to say "who" – Mari-Lou A – 2019-01-08T17:32:37.277


@Mari-LouA - Spot on – unless you’re a grammar fiend. (In this discussion, I know who I’d want to go have a beer with.)

– J.R. – 2019-01-08T18:03:04.123

@Andrew *she* is *subject*, *her* is *[direct or indirect] object* (and homonym for the possessive). – Will Crawford – 2019-01-09T17:58:06.133

While what you say is correct (afaics), I think it misses the point. The students don't want to ask with or for who(m) she is playing but they simply substitute "the girl" with "she" because that's normally possible. In fact, this substitution is the function of a personal pronoun. "The girl speaks" -- "she speaks". The OP is asking: Which grammar rule makes this substitution which is normally allowed wrong in this case? (If we suppose it is wrong; some seem to contend that it is just unusual.) – Peter - Reinstate Monica – 2019-01-10T05:20:25.160

Nice post. The answer is that, as GB says, pronouns are not easily modifiable, and we can only do so in special situations. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-12T00:30:28.867


I parse this (at least in a spoke context) as similar to:

Who does she think she is, playing the piano?


Who is she, to be playing the piano?

The original phrase suggests to me that the piano player is in some way out of place, and the emphasis is not just on the identity of the she, but more on something less pleasant. Depending on the context of the phrase, it may be intended as discriminatory, or it may accidentally reflect a phrasing which has been used to discriminate in the past. Obviously in the context asked it is accidental, but that doesn't capture potential confusion if this sort of phrase is used in conversation.

As mentioned in comments, this does not feel like a phrasing which would occur in written English.

Sean Houlihane

Posted 2019-01-08T00:55:20.903

Reputation: 387

That's how I read the original sentence, too - with an air of incredulity. +1, none of the other answers have addressed that subtle context. – Nuclear Wang – 2019-01-08T14:08:20.933

1"Depending on the context of the quote..." We know the context: it is a statement by someone who is still learning English, so we shouldn't read subtle implications into it. Those would be accidental. All Hojo is asking for in this question is an easily understood explanation for why one of his quoted sentences is OK, and the other one isn't. – Lorel C. – 2019-01-08T15:36:22.117

My explanation is simple - there is a risk of people drawing inferences which are not intended when this construction is used by accident. This is why it should not be used even if it feels kind of OK to a non-native speaker. We already have answers which imply the phrase might be OK to use, and I think these don't tell the whole story. – Sean Houlihane – 2019-01-08T15:54:35.230

This highlights the difference between "Who's she?" and "Who is she?". The sentence in the OP sounds like the latter. The former might be complimentary. – Aaron F – 2019-01-09T12:30:53.853

1That was the way I took the sentence. A point that needs to be made is that I would never expect to see this in written English, only spoken with an emphasis on "she". It would indicate the speaker's belief that the playing was inferior and not appropriate to the setting. – Ross Millikan – 2019-01-11T04:16:35.913


When you are asking about identity, it is a good idea to give the category of person, - student - teacher - man, woman, child - person - your friend, their friend etc.

Who is she? [she is not identified at all]. She is my friend and a nice person. Who is your friend playing the piano? Who is that person playing the piano? Who is that playing the piano? [that=that person]

That's the easiest answer I can come up with.

"Who is" introduces a question. It may be followed by: - a noun: Who is John? Who is that man? Who is the winner? - an adjective: Who is late? - a verb: Who is coming to the party. [John is coming to the party.] Who plays the piano? The pronoun "who" is a subject pronoun in the question "who is [plus verb or noun]", ergo, saying she is ungrammatical. You can't have "who" as an interrogative pronoun and she as a subject pronoun together.

Please note: Who is playing the piano? Mary is playing the piano. In the interrogative form, you do not use a pronoun when the identity is unknown.

  • Who is playing the piano? Mary is playing the piano. versus
  • Who is Mary? She is a pianist.
  • Who is she? She is Mary.

In the interrogative form, there is no **she (pronoun) because the pronoun here, the subject pronoun is "who".** Therefore, "Who is she playing the piano?" would be providing two subject pronouns.


Posted 2019-01-08T00:55:20.903

Reputation: 26 929

Yeah, I can't even come up with an answer that good. Still, I think there's one "out there". – Lorel C. – 2019-01-08T15:39:11.913

@LorelC. I updated it after an overnight think. – Lambie – 2019-01-08T16:05:23.987


I think it's because a participle (such as playing the piano) can't modify a personal pronoun (such as she).

These are all correct:

  • Who are you looking at? The girl playing the piano.
  • Who is the girl playing the piano?
  • The girl playing the piano is Sarah.

These are all incorrect:

  • Who are you looking at? Her playing the piano.
  • Who is she playing the piano?
  • She playing the piano is Sarah.

Tanner Swett

Posted 2019-01-08T00:55:20.903

Reputation: 4 341


I don't know if this will help your students, but here goes. From the formal linguistics perspective, the intended question is constructed by starting with

play piano

Then you attach the interrogative pronoun 'who' as the subject

who play piano

So there's no place for another subject pronoun.

When you make it present tense and imperfective aspect, the verb structure becomes

be who playing piano

The subject 'who' raises to subject position and triggers agreement with 'be' to form

who is playing piano

It's possible that your students are misunderstanding 'who' as a complementizer instead of a pronoun. So in their incorrect sentence 'who is she playing the piano' the 'who' might be intended to correspond to 'whether' in

I wonder whether she is playing the piano

Theoretically, there's a wh-complementizer at the very top of the correct question structure, but it has no spoken content in English. It's similar to 'that' that can be left out here:

I think that she is playing the piano

I think she is playing the piano

Another possibility is that the students are attempting to form

Who is she that is playing the piano

and are trying to use a null complementizer instead of 'that' which isn't allowed in English here. As in, they are forming a phrase parallel to

I like the girl that is playing the piano (but not some other girl)

which you can rephrase without the 'that is'

I like the girl playing the piano (but not some other girl)

The students may also be simply misunderstanding the prompt: Are they supposed to ask a question about the girl's identity, or what she's doing?

Incidentally, questions in English are especially weird when they involve the subject, so I'm not surprised to see ESL students struggling with them. Among other weirdness, they don't trigger do-support:

*Who does be playing the piano

garrett mitchener

Posted 2019-01-08T00:55:20.903

Reputation: 21

Actually, I think you need to start with a question form. – Lambie – 2019-01-08T18:39:11.363


So in this case,

Who is she playing the piano

「playing the piano」is modifying the subject pronoun (she).

Doesn't it alone make you think this a bit strange?

Interrogative pronoun "Who", needs to take a noun, which is either the girl or the boy or whatever the object is, otherwise we wouldn't know Who really is (what).

Who (pronoun) is the girl (noun) playing the piano (modifier) denotes who is XXXXX. Who (pronoun) is she (pronoun) playing the piano (modifier) denotes who really is something X which should be described later in detail.

Anyhow, my answer is clumsy, so downvotes are welcome and give me a comment for help!


Posted 2019-01-08T00:55:20.903

Reputation: 2 476


My two cents:

I've learned that there is a little difference left between using 'who,' and 'whom.' The easiest way (as a non-native speaker), I can say the students should use the girl instead of the pronoun to avoid ambiguity.

We often say,

She is buying me a doll.

Here, we have a subject, indirect object, and direct object.

If you remove the indirect object, the question could be formed as:

Who is she buying a doll?

There is me in the sentence and thus, the answer is me.

But, in your question, it becomes ambiguous.

Who is she playing the piano?

The answer could be *'she's playing her brother the piano.'*

Replacing the pronoun with a noun (girl) ends all the ambiguities. There, clearly, the subject is playing the piano...and of course for no one!

Maulik V

Posted 2019-01-08T00:55:20.903

Reputation: 66 188

2If one speaks the kind of English that still cares about the difference between who and whom, that should be, "Whom is she buying a doll?" (And I would probably not say even that; I'd say, "For whom is she buying a doll?") Likewise, I would never say, "She's playing her brother the piano," unless I were willing to say her brother is a piano. – David K – 2019-01-08T04:41:31.913

3@DavidK I did not put a comma and that saved her brother from being the piano. Hope you get it ;) – Maulik V – 2019-01-08T06:43:08.030

+1, I'd add that the property you are describing, and the reason this sentence is wrong is because the it has the structure of using a ditransitive verb, but there is no transitive meaning. The fact that "play" can be a ditransitive verb (or have that meaning) makes the confusion escalate. It is still possible to decipher the meaning behind the sentence, but it takes rational effort - and most grammar is designed to avoid those situations. – Stian Yttervik – 2019-01-08T09:50:45.107

There's no me in that sentence, but there's an omitted for at the end, whom it is. – Mazura – 2019-01-08T10:40:09.787

If she has another brother who was turned into a guitar by a witch, the appositive in "her brother the piano" would not take a comma. I would just say she's playing the piano for her brother and save my listener (or reader) a lot of effort. – David K – 2019-01-08T13:42:02.973

1This is not about who/whom. It is about using the pronoun she in the sentence. – Lambie – 2019-01-08T18:39:56.077

@DavidK How about "She is playing her brother a sonata"? Would you imagine that that meant that her brother was a sonata? – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-09T23:45:25.230

@Mazura No, that's not corect. "I played her the piano" is perfectly correct. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-10T00:00:58.360

@Lambie I think that Maulik was protecting himself against comments like "in that case it would be whom not who. I agree with you. suspect he would to. Regardless, the top voted answer here is completely wrong :( – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-10T00:03:01.113

@Araucaria Thank you.Yes, that happens a lot around here. :) But actually, we would say: I played the piano for her. But: "I played her a sonata." is right. – Lambie – 2019-01-10T00:05:29.207

@Lambie We don't only say one thing, I reckon We say certain things more often than we say others. Maulik's example is a bit unlikely, but he has a good point here. He's being downvoted by people who don't get his answer properly. And the selected answer is complete rubbish. It's important that relatively good answers get upvoted and the utterly incorrect ones get downvotes. :-) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-10T00:08:04.687

Araucaria: "I played her the piano" is not very kosher. You play an instrument for someone. You play [someone] a type of music. – Lambie – 2019-01-10T00:11:46.083

@Lambie "She didn't like me playing her the saxaphone, so I played her the piano" – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-10T00:13:03.277

@Lambie Sounds ok to me .. What think ye? – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-10T00:13:43.487

That is slightly different, and in that context, I would accept it. But I would tend to say: play the x for her, so I played the x for her. – Lambie – 2019-01-10T00:20:10.147

@Araucaria If someone has two brothers, one of whom is a teacher and the other is not, one can make an appositive noun phrase that describes the first brother distinctly from the other: "her brother the teacher." The phrase is never "her brother a teacher." Unsurprisingly, when you make a word substitution into a phrase that is forbidden according to the original grammar of that phrase, you end up with something with different grammar. How we get meaning from the new phrase tells us little about how to get meaning from the original phrase. – David K – 2019-01-10T03:13:49.060

@Araucaria For the record, I neither downvoted this answer nor upvoted the accepted one. I don't know who cast the downvotes nor their reasons for doing so. I appreciated the humorous response to my first critical comment, however. Humor makes things more pleasant. – David K – 2019-01-10T03:20:56.277

A prophet is never respected in their own home! – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2019-01-11T23:45:59.247