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