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In the Genki 1 textbook, the question prompt

本を読んでいる人誰ですか?

appears alongside an illustration with a bunch of people doing different activities. The textbook user is then supposed to pick out a specific person in the image with は (高田さんは本を読んでいます).

I've been studying Japanese long enough to understand that in contrast,

本を読んでいる人誰ですか?

sounds wrong, but when I take a second to think about it, I can't actually figure out why it's wrong based on the meaning of が (it seems like it could work as exhaustive-listing が if I didn't know better).

Thinking of は versus が as a difference between introducing new information (が) and drawing upon old information(は)I was thinking maybe the nuance here is that, in the textbook exercise all of the people in the picture are established as pre-registered/old information (though I don't know why they would be considered old), and thus は is simply used to bring it into the realm of the conversation again.

That guess aside, does anyone have insight on why は instead of が?

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  • 高田さん本を読んでいます answering who is reading. 高田さん本を読んでいます answering what is Takada-san doing. In other way you can ask 本を読んでいる人ですか. But 本を読んでいる人ですか is wrong. And answer will be 高田さん本を読んでいる人です or 本を読んでいる人高田さんです. Sorry, I can't explain it correctly in grammar terms. – rzlvmp Nov 14 '20 at 9:28
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I can't explain it correctly in grammar terms, but here is simple explanation why you can't use 本を読んでいる人誰ですか?

Case 1. You see man reading book and want to know who is it (is it Takada-san?), so you asking 本を読んでる人は高田さんですか. And answer will be はい、高田さんです。 Yes, he is mister Takada.

Case 2. You see two men. One of them reading book, another one drinking juice. And you want to know is mister Takada a man who reading book? So you asking 本を読んでる人が高田さんですか. And answer will be はい、本を読んでいる人です。Yes, (mister Takada) a man who reading book.

Okay, return to our question. 本を読んでいる人が誰ですか. Answer will be はい、本を読んでいる人です. This is illogical question: Is who reading book? → Yes reading.

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  • Thanks for your answer! In case 2, would 本を読んでる人は高田さんですか also be okay? – Daphne Nov 14 '20 at 16:19
  • If your aim is to determine who is Takada, of course it will be possible to do correct conclusion using both は and が in case 2. But if you want to know Takada's action, only が is correct. If you want to determine people you can use 本を読んでいる人は誰ですか or 誰が本を読んでいる人ですか。If you want to know action you can use 高田さんは何をしている人ですか or 何をしている人が高田ですか (sounds strange, but grammatically correct). は is before question word and が is after. – rzlvmp Nov 15 '20 at 0:41

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