誰が学生?versus 学生は誰?

I started reading tae kim’s guide. I’m at this page http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/grammar/particlesintro and I’m not sure I understand the subtle differences between his two example sentences :

  1. 誰が学生?
    Who is the one that is student?

  2. 学生は誰?
    (The) student is who?

Essentially, what’s different between the two ? I’m trying to make sense of it but I’m really struggling.

My understanding:

  1. The person, who is the student, is unknown perhaps out of a group of people. One way to translate it may be Who, among these people, is a student?

  2. The person who is the student is known and more information about this person is being requested. Who is the person (who we both know is a student)?

The difference is in the focus of the question, if that helps.

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So in both cases we know that there is a student but we don’t know who they are ? (or is it that in the first case, we’re looking for a student out of a group of people but don’t know whether there is one or not ?)

In the second case, we’ve already been talking about a student who’s identified (i.e. we know there’s a student and maybe some other things about them) but we’re asking for more information (e.g. a name) ?

Or am I messing it up ?

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I think the main takeaway should be the difference between が and は.


が is the subject, it’s pretty straightforward.

誰が学生?
Who (is) a student?


は marks the topic. It cannot be a question word, because it’s not supposed to provide new information. It’s what you’re talking about. You use it to either replace the topic or contrast with something.

学生は誰?
As for the student(s), who (is one)?

To me it sounds like it is already established that there is/are student(s), but the one asking doesn’t know who they are.

I tried to show the difference in my translation by saying “the student(s)” instead of “a student,” if that makes sense. “Who is a student?” has less assumptions or foreknowledge than “Who is the student?”

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No.
In 誰が学生, you’re not sure whether there will be a student or not. Just like you suspected in your follow up question.

Yes, that’s essentially the case. Since the question is very open ended, the person responding could provide a wealth or a dearth of information pertaining to the student.

I have to admit that Tae Kim doesn’t really address は vs. が very well. I suggest supplementing it with other explanations. I found Japanese Ammo with Misa explanation to be really thorough if you have the time to listen to it.

I find that these two concepts get introduced right off the bat which makes it seem like they are interchangeable and hard to differentiate when in fact there’s very specific uses for them. One important thing that many resources fail to explain is that Japanese is a pro-drop language. In other words, the subject of the sentence (marked by が) can be omitted if the speaker feels like the audience can infer who or what it is by the context.

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Yeah I would say so

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