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Whose for Inanimate Objects

Can you use "whose" to refer to inanimate objects?

By
Bonnie Trenga Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
May 23, 2008
Episode #108

whose for inanimate objectsToday's topic, “whose” was written by Bonnie Trenga.

First, for those of you who didn't listen all the way to the end of last week's show and were outraged that I used the words irregardless and cogitate; it was a joke; although apparently some of you didn't think it was very funny. It followed the section about depression and was meant to show that I was depressed. A depressed Grammar Girl uses poor grammar. Get it? If you had listened to the end or checked the website, you would have heard my note that it was a joke. Sorry for any confusion.

A listener named Mike Murphy wrote in with this message:

The car whose windshield wipers weren't working was driving in the fast lane. The tree whose leaves were falling seems to be dying. Whose seems like it must refer to a person or animal but not to a car or a tree, and it does not sound correct. Is it correct to use whose in this manner? And is there perhaps a better way to construct the above sentences?

Thanks for your question, Mike. If you used whose in those two sentences, you’d be in the same company as Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth—all famous writers (1). You might, however, annoy a few modern complainers who think you should use whose to refer to people and animals only. 

Whose to Refer to People and Animals

Whose is the possessive form of both who and which (2). It makes sense to say that whose is the possessive form of who because who is in the word. As you know, you use who to refer to a person or sometimes an animal, and this person or animal you’re referring to is called an “animate antecedent.” “Animate” refers to living people and animals (but not plants), such as my son, Jake, or his pet fish, Gary. An “antecedent” is a word that you’re referring back to. So in the sentence “Jake fed Gary, whose favorite food was dried worms,” “Gary” is the antecedent of whose.

Whose to Refer to Inanimate Objects

There is no dispute about using whose to refer to a person or animal. There is, however, some argument about whether it’s OK to use whose to refer to something that’s not a person or animal: a car or a tree, for instance. That’s what Mike was asking about: whether it’s OK to use whose to refer to what’s known as an “inanimate antecedent.” Cars and trees are not alive in the same sense as people and animals. Of course trees are living plants, but plants are considered inanimate. I guess they can’t talk or communicate in an animated fashion.

In short, Mike is perfectly right when he uses whose to refer to tree. Although some people don’t like it, whose is the only English word we have to refer to inanimate antecedents. Perhaps someone will invent a new word for this purpose, but as of now we’re stuck with whose. Going all the way back to the 14th century, you’ll find many literary examples of authors referring back to an inanimate antecedent (1). Fowler’s quotes Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought death into the world…” (3).

Whose Versus of Which

Some sticklers prefer you use whose to refer to animate antecedents only, but Fowler’s refers to this preference as a “folk-belief” (3). Fowler himself wrote in 1926, “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, and present intelligibility, and obvious convenience, on their side….” These folk-believers think you should substitute the phrase of which for whose. I’ve been trying to reword that Milton quotation by using of which, but I can’t manage to create a palatable sentence. I’m having the same trouble rewording both of Mike’s examples: “The car whose windshield wipers…” and “The tree whose leaves…”

In some cases, you might be able to use of which, but most of the time your sentence will sound stilted and your sentence flow will be ruined. The three major sources I referred to all agree that of which is not an ideal solution to the whose conundrum (1, 2, 3). The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style states, “This is one case in which the cure could be worse than the disease.” Funny how it didn’t state it this way: “This is one case whose cure could be worse than the disease.”

Should You Avoid Using Whose?

Sometimes, the best way to deal with this problem is to reword the sentence to avoid whose altogether. Let’s try this out on one of Mike’s sentences: “The car whose windshield wipers weren't working was driving in the fast lane.” You could rewrite this in a number of ways, but I like “Although the car’s windshield wipers weren’t working, it was driving in the fast lane.”

If you want to use whose to refer back to an inanimate antecedent, go ahead and use it. If, on the other hand, you choose to rewrite sentences to avoid using whose to refer to inanimate antecedents, check that your sentences flow nicely together. I do discourage you from using of which unless you’re sure the sentence doesn’t sound too awkward. And, of course, be sure to spell whose W-H-O-S-E, not W-H-O-apostrophe-S, which is a contraction of who is.

Administrative

This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier. You can find more of her work and a link to her book at http://sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.


References

1. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 505-6.

2. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, p. 1965.

3. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 563.

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