English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin


Q: In your post last May about “who” and “which,” you use (deliberately?) a “who”-related word for things (“clauses whose information”). If “who” is used exclusively for people, why is “whose” used for both people and things?

A: Yes, we deliberately used “whose” to refer to things. It’s a myth that “whose” shouldn’t be used in reference to inanimate things, as in “a company whose CEO is 22 years old,” or “an idea whose time has come.”

For more than a thousand years, “whose” has been used—and quite properly—for both people and things. Yet the belief that “whose” is only for people is one of the most stubborn misconceptions about English grammar.

We’ve referred to this hoary old myth before on our blog, but we’ve never devoted an entire post to it. 

The fiction persists because many people associate “whose” with “who.” They assume that because “who” applies to people and not things, the same must be true of “whose.”

But as dictionaries and usage guides will tell you, “whose” is the genitive (or possessive) case of both “who” and “which.”

(The genitive case, as we’ve written before, is for relationships much wider than simple possession or ownership. It indicates “of or relating to” as well as “belonging to.”)

So “whose” can apply to a person or a thing; it can mean “of whom” or “of which.” 

“Whose” was first recorded in the late 800s, when it was written in Old English as hwæs, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In those times, it was the genitive case of both “who” (hwa) and “what” (hwæt), the OED says.

During the Middle English period (roughly 1100-1500), the spelling of “whose” shifted a lot, from hwas to the later hwos and whos. During this same period—in the 1300s—people began using “whose” as the genitive form of “which” as well as “who.”

That’s how it’s been used ever since, and that’s how standard dictionaries define it. Yet because of its similarity to “who,” many people think its use for things is taboo.

In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Henry Fowler vigorously condemned the taboo against using “whose” for things:

“Let us, in the name of common sense, prohibit the prohibition of whose inanimate; good writing is surely difficult enough without the forbidding of things that have historical grammar, & present intelligibility, & obvious convenience, on their side, & lack only—starch.”

The current Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), by R. W. Burchfield, says the notion that “whose” is limited to people is a “folk-belief.”

The editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage use even stronger language: “The notion that whose may not properly be used of anything except persons is a superstition.”

“The force that has always worked against acceptance of whose used of inanimate things is its inevitable association with who,” the usage guide says.

But “whose,” Merriam-Webster’s adds, is commonly used in reference to things, even in writing characterized by “formality and solemnity.”

The OED says that “in reference to a thing or things (inanimate or abstract),” the pronoun “whose” was “originally the genitive of the neuter what … in later use serving as the genitive of which.”

And as the OED’s citations prove, “whose” has been used this way for centuries by the best of writers. Here are some examples:

“I would a tale vnfold, whose lightest word / Would harrow vp thy soule.” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1603.)

“Mountains on whose barren brest / The labouring clouds do often rest.” (John Milton, L’Allegro, 1645.)

 “A newspaper of sound principles, but whose staff will persist in ‘casting’ anchors.” (Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea, 1906.)

“She looked down … and saw a little house, with a blue door whose colour delighted her.” (Elizabeth Bowen, The Hotel, 1927.)

“Toby … marvelled at this light which is no light … and whose strength is seen only in the sharpness of cast shadows.” (Iris Murdoch, The Bell, 1958.)

“There were pictures whose context she understood immediately.” (Ian McEwan, The Comfort of Strangers, 1981.)

Merriam-Webster’s has many more examples, from the Bible, Milton (Paradise Lost), Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, Stephen Spender, Lewis Mumford, and John Updike.  

Yet, some people still doubt the propriety of “whose” in cases like these. They’d rather substitute “of which,” though the result is often a clumsy monstrosity.

Take the examples we used in our opening sentence: “a company whose CEO is 22 years old,” and “an idea whose time has come.”

Without “whose,” they’re stiff and ungainly: “a company the CEO of which is 22 years old,” and “an idea the time of which has come.”

“Of which” isn’t wrong here—just starchy, as Fowler would say. But “whose” isn’t wrong either, so why avoid a perfectly good usage?

We’ll let the Merriam-Webster’s editors have the final word: “The misinformation that passes for gospel wisdom about English usage is sometimes astounding.”

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