Grammar Question

A friend asked this question in another forum. Maybe you guys can help:

Many of these towns have a road whose name comes from the next town over.

In the future, there will be companies whose workforces consist entirely of robots.

I’d prefer a book whose characters weren’t so stupid.

Are these correct uses of the word whose? On the one hand, we usually reserve the word “who” for people and use “that” for inanimate objects. On the other hand, the word “that” does not have a possessive form analogous to “whose”.

Every one of these sentences can of course be rewritten to avoid the problem (“I’d prefer a book with characters who weren’t so stupid”.) But the question is whether they sound okay to you as written.

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45 Responses to “Grammar Question”


  1. 1 1 RPLong

    According to my understanding, the second sentence is borderline, because “company” can be conceived as a plurality of people, but the other two are just simply incorrect.

    It’s true that using the word “that” doesn’t improve the sentences. My vote is that at least two – and probably all three – of the senctences need to be re-written to avoid the problem.

    For sentence #1, replace “whose name” with “the name of which.”
    For sentence #2, replace “whose workforces consist” with “with workforces consisting.”
    For sentence #3, replace “whose” with “in which the.”

    I’m interested to hear what others have to say.

  2. 2 2 Sam Wilson

    Each sentence strikes my ear as conversationally appropriate, but I think I’d revise for publication.

    The Chicago Manual of Style addresses which/that distinctions, but has nothing to contribute to choices over “whose”. I can’t seem to find my copy of Strunk and White’s here and I can’t recall offhand if they cover the topic. I’ll take a look when I get home unless someone beats me to it.

  3. 3 3 Steve

    According to Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd Edition) it is perfectly acceptable to use “whose” to refer to things rather than people.

    I like this construction as it is often the most straightforward, though obviously there are still people who’ll argue about it.

  4. 4 4 Matt

    Whose is the possessive form of “which” as well as “who”, and therefore acceptable to use in reference to an inanimate object. The only direct substitute is “of which”, which often results in unnecessarily clumsy sentence structure.

  5. 5 5 Jens Fiederer

    Looks perfectly acceptable to me. Fretting about the etymology of terms is not always a good indication to current usage.

    I’ll have a look at the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language when I get home, but I’ll note that one of the authors of that heavy tome (in the group blog Language Log) talks “about anthropologist Franz Boas’s travels in the early 20th century with a Canadian Inuit band whose language he learned” and another linguist on the same site notes ‘There are also lots of Chinese restaurants whose names comprise “wok”, e.g., “O’Wok”, “Wok nTalk”, “Wok ‘n Roll”, and just “Wok”.’

  6. 6 6 Brian

    Dictionary.com lists as a correct example:
    “a word whose meaning escapes me.”

    So it sounds like your examples are fine.

  7. 7 7 Jens Fiederer

    Note that if Mr.Wilson gets home before I do, which is likely, Strunk and White is not necessarily reliable….see http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

  8. 8 8 Steve Reilly

    RPLong, I’d say your rewrites make the sentences much more stilted. Which I think tends to happen when people rewrite sentences based on zombie rules.

    Sam Wilson, Strunk and White don’t deal with this use of “whose” that I remember, but then Strunk also never dealt with the silly, useless “which/that” distinction. White did in his rewriting of the book, and he had to edit some of Strunk’s original sentences to make them conform. That book is more a list of some alleged peeves than a serious study of grammar. Its fame puzzles me.

    So, Steve, I agree with Matt and Jens Fiederer.

  9. 9 9 Dan

    Sentence #1 is wrong for a different reason. “Many of these towns have a road…” specifies a single road that goes through many towns, but clearly the writer intends to describe one road per town.

  10. 10 10 Jon Sealy

    The sentences are correct as written.

    Webster’s says “whose” is the possessive pronoun for “who” and “which.”

    The Chicago Manual of Style explicitly says “whose” can refer to people or things (rule 5.220 in the 16th edition).

  11. 11 11 RPLong

    @ Steve Reilly

    FWIW, I see prose as being a different question than grammar, hence the principle of “poetic license.” Plenty of poorly written sentences are euphonic. I even agree that grammarians are willfully ignorant of the fact that languages are ever-evolving.

    Still, the rules exist. Based on subsequent comments, I see that I was wrong about the rules, but I still feel that prose shouldn’t necessarily dictate what the rules are.

  12. 12 12 Jim

    Sam Wilson, CMOS does treat this (16th ed., 5.61):

    “Some writers object to using as a replacement for , especially when the subject is not human, but the usage is centuries old and widely accepted as preventing unnecessary awkwardness. Compare with . Either form is acceptable, but the possessive whose lends greater smoothness.”

  13. 13 13 Jim

    (Oops – Previous comment garbled in machine translation; here is un-garbled version…hopefully)

    Sam Wilson, CMOS does treat this (16th ed., 5.61):

    “Some writers object to using ‘whose’ as a replacement for ‘of which’, especially when the subject is not human, but the usage is centuries old and widely accepted as preventing unnecessary awkwardness. Compare ‘the company whose stock rose faster’ with ‘the company the stock of which rose faster’. Either form is acceptable, but the possessive whose lends greater smoothness.”

  14. 14 14 khodge

    They did not “sound” wrong when I first read them, but that is largely a matter of training. By way of example, I always expect to hear “from” following the word different because that was taught clearly in grade school grammar while I don’t recall the same emphasis on the proper use of “whose.” (A similar example of my training – that conflicts with my logic – is “never put the period after the quotation mark.”) RPLong’s focus on grammarians is misplaced; it is largely people who think they know grammar relying on what they remember from grade school.

  15. 15 15 Ken B

    Ahh the lure of the subordinating possessive pronoun! Too rarely do we discuss these or (my heart flutters) gerunds in apposition!

    They all sound fine to me. ‘Whose’ serves as ‘of which’ as well as the possessive of who. There are more words for this in German. But whose cares what I think?

  16. 16 16 Ken B

    The Elements of Style is not a grammar book; it is a neophyte’s guide to clear and effective writing. Most of the screeds against it would be more compelling had they been written in accord with its precepts.

  17. 17 17 David Grayson

    I agree with Sam Wilson #2. I’m not sure if the original sentences are technically correct, but they seem OK to me in a conversation. If I were writing something serious, I would convert the sentences to avoid “whose”, and get rid of contractions and idioms like “next town over” to help out non-English speakers:

    “Many of these towns have roads named after nearby towns.”

    “In the future, there will be companies with workforces consisting entirely of robots.”

    “I would prefer a book with characters that are not so stupid.”

  18. 18 18 Ken B

    “Many of these towns have roads named after nearby towns.”

    Interestingly enough though this reformulation misses the point. The road is named for the next town over, so that Lands has a Burg Road, and Burg has a Lands Road. Often the same road. It’s this connection to the place the road leads to, not incidental propinquity, that is dropped in your rewrite.

  19. 19 19 Brandon Berg

    They all sound fine to me. It’s like “they,” which doubles as a plural for both animate and inanimate subjects.

  20. 20 20 William

    I always consult Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage on these questions. It always gives me the answer I want, and thus I continue to consult it.

    To wit:

    “The notion that whose may not properly be used of anything except persons is a superstition; it has been used by innumerable standard authors from Wycliffe to Updike, and is entirely standard as an alternative to of which the in all varieties of discourse.”

  21. 21 21 Brian

    When in doubt I usually aks Grammar Girl.

    In short, the answer is yes, you can use “whose”.

    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).

    And,

    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….”

    But see the whole post for the full discussion.

  22. 22 22 Rebecca

    According to the Chicago Manual of Style, 5.61, “whose” is the possessive form of both “which” and “who”.

  23. 23 23 Ken B

    @Brian: That’s better than porn!

  24. 24 24 iceman

    Now i’m wondering what the “Hot For Words” hostess has to say on this

  25. 25 25 Mike H

    Let us, in the name of common sense, prohibit the prohibition of ‘whose’ inanimate

    Why did he have to ask (Let us…)? Did someone prohibit his prohibiting of the prohibition of ‘whose’ inanimate?

  26. 26 26 Jens Fiederer

    Not news to anybody at this point but here’s the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language:

    “The contrast between personal “who” and non-personal “which” is neutralized in the genitive, where “whose” is the only form. It occurs with both personal and non-personal antecedants.”

    (single words in quotes were represented with bold and italics in the original text)

  27. 27 27 Swimmy

    Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, one of the best descriptivist usage guides on the market, gives “whose” for genitive “that” a thumbs up:

    “The notion that whose may not properly be used of anything except persons is a supersition; it has been used by innumerable standard authors from Wycliffe to Updike, and is entirely standard as an alternative to of which the in all varieties of discourse.”

    The authors see it as plain enough (and not contentious enough among prescriptivist grammarians) that they only cite a handful of sources, including Norman Douglas, Lewis Sinclair, John Updike, the New Republic, and the New Yorker.

  28. 28 28 byafi

    I gave up after encountering Mark Twain’s book The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg. If Twain can write that, who am I to quibble.

  29. 29 29 SJA

    If only there were one usage guide whose opinions were authoritative… Personally, I don’t like the way those sentences sound, and I don’t think they sound conversational. But I guess if “Grammar Girl” says we’re stuck, we’re stuck. I’m not sure why she assumes that the fruit of that forbidden tree was inanimate. That apple wanted to be eaten.

  30. 30 30 Mike H

    @SJA “If only there were one usage guide whose opinions were authoritative”

    Pour ça, it faul parler Français.

  31. 31 31 Harold

    Looks pretty conclusive that whose is OK in these contexts. Someone touched on USA useage not found all over the English speaking world. One or two common americanisms sound very strange to the UK ear. “In back” is almost never used in the UK, behind would always be used. Although the opposite “in front” is very common. “Me either” is used in USA where a Brit would say “me neither”. The pronounciation of French borrowings is also arbitrary. In the UK we have a fillet steak pronounced fill-it, and a coupe car pronounced coupay. In the USA the opposite francophone pronounciation has survived.

  32. 32 32 Andy

    I find it interesting that almost everyone seems to disregard the question: “the question is whether they sound okay to you as written”. Most comments refer to if they are CORRECT or not. I think they sound fine, I understand what is meant and there is not much room for misinterpretation. I am always sceptical about if something is correct or not when it comes to language. Correct according to what? English? Isn’t English supposed to evolve and change as people’s way of communicating changes? If there are indeed some ‘rules’ that we are supposed to follow, then when were those set? Dictionaries and such are only supposed to be a record of what words and grammar are being used currently, not as rule books. If you doubt that I suggest you have a look at one from the 19th century and see if the latest thing you wrote is ‘correct’. I say stop trying to lable language as correct or incorrect and let it evolve freely as it has done throughout history.

  33. 33 33 Sam Wilson

    It appears I should have been more clear.

    The edition of the CMOS I have on my desk has nothing to say on the topic. Judging from others’ comments, it’s probably time I got the latest edition.

  34. 34 34 Alan Gunn

    They sound just fine to me. Furthermore, recasting them to avoid the issue gets you very stilted substitutes.

  35. 35 35 Ken B

    English is full of traps for the unwary. Here the trap is simplicity. “Whose” works for all, singular or plural, animate or inanimate. It is the only subordinating pronoun whose object is in genitive.

    This allows one to write sentences like this: Many commenters, whose comments contain links whose target is the CMOS — a source whose status is high — answered Steve, whose question sparked this debate.

  36. 36 36 Bill Drissel

    Dr Steve,
    In our first year of Latin, we were introduced to the notion of “idiom” – words in context or phrases that can’t be translated literally or logically. Idioms have to be translated according to what the Romans meant by them.

    Similarly attempts to apply logic, esthetics or personal preferences to real languages will always fail for isolated “corner cases”.

    The only thing to do is to take the language as you find it. “Whose” is the possessive of both “who” and inanimate “which”. Use some awkward circumlocution if you must but I’d recommend speaking and writing Standard English (as we find it in our times in the work of careful writers.)

    Regards,
    Bill Drissel

  37. 37 37 Harold

    Andy (32). The notion of “correct” is interesting. Also interesting is that SL asked two questions as though they were the same -”are these correct uses of the word whose?” and “whether they sound okay to you as written?” These could have different answers. Also interesting is the notion that something written has a sound. Should that be “do they look okay as written?”

  38. 38 38 Drew

    Did you understand what the speakers were trying to convey in each of the 3 sentences?

    If so, then language has already done its essential job, and the argument over whether the usage is correct, while not entirely inconsequential, is sort of like arguing over the correct placement of forks at a fancy place-setting. It’s true that improper usage can become a slippery slope which leads to a lot of ambiguity and confusion. But it’s also true that language and usage evolves over time: primarily because of people trying to find faster and more efficient ways to convey the same meaning with the least number of complicated rules.

    If you open any good dictionary or book on grammar, you’ll find a passage noting that the contents are essentially a guide to _common usage_. They are not themselves eternal truths: they are simply always-updated guidebooks the a massive coordination game that is language.

    I will definitely, in most cases, be a hard-ass about grammatical or spelling mistakes. That’s because the price usually paid is confusion (a speaker meaning to convey one meaning, but instead conveying the wrong meaning, or, even worse: multiple possible meanings). But ultimately, these battles are not important because there’s any fundamental rightness to one position over another (just like there’s no fundamental rightness to which side of the street we all drive on). They only really matter insofar as they help people most easily and efficiently understand what other people are trying to say, given the constraints of thousands of years of embedded practice and billions of people with particular, but slightly differing, understandings of a given language.

  39. 39 39 Joel

    …But that I am forbid
    “To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
    I could a tale unfold WHOSE lightest word
    Would harrow up thy soul…”
    - Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5

    If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me.

    The opening line of Milton’s Paradise Lost uses it too:

    “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
    Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
    Brought Death into the World…”

  40. 40 40 Joel

    After a bid of googling, earliest use of the inanimate ‘whose’ is in Sir Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’:

    “These and such like notions have that people imbibed, partly from their education, being bred in a country whose customs and laws are opposite to all such foolish maxims…”

  41. 41 41 Joel

    After a bit of googling, earliest use of the inanimate ‘whose’ is in Sir Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’:

    “These and such like notions have that people imbibed, partly from their education, being bred in a country whose customs and laws are opposite to all such foolish maxims…”

  42. 42 42 Paul Tuns

    I’m going to endorse Drew’s point (38). I don’t really care about the grammar. The point of writing or speaking is to communicate so that others understand what you mean. Everyone reading those sentences knows what the author means. And I say that as an editor. Admittedly, a mostly libertarian editor. (BTW, why do libertarians care so much about grammar and spelling. Shouldn’t we take a more relaxed attitude about how people express themselves?) Worrying about grammar is more about signalling (“I’m literate”).

  43. 43 43 Ken B

    @Joel 41:
    I don’t buy it. For one thing, we have a high quality reference above (see #20) citing Wycliffe. For another there is that I know of no obsolete pronoun that does the trick. (There is a subordinatinng conjunction, whereof.)

  44. 44 44 Joel

    @Ken B 42:

    I think you misunderstand the reference to Wycliffe. Merriam-Webster’s doesn’t mean that Wycliffe held the belief that the inanimate whose should not be used. It means that Wycliffe himself used it:

    “and seiden, Come ye, and make we to vs a citee and tour, whos hiynesse stretche `til to heuene”
    - Genesis 11:4

    “and seide, The erthe brynge forth greene eerbe and makynge seed, and appil tre makynge fruyt bi his kynde, whos seed be in it silf on erthe”
    - Genesis 1:11

    I didn’t bother with Wycliffe because I was only looking for references in Modern English.

    It is interesting that coincidentally, multiple references I have found of the inanimate ‘whose’ refers to trees and towers.

    Trees:

    Milton’s Forbidden tree…

    Shakespeare’s:

    …Was graft with crab-tree slip; whose fruit thou art…
    - Henry VI, Part II, Act II, Scene 2

    (Granted, Shakespeare crab-tree metaphorically refers to an “untutor’d churl”, and churls are animate…)

    Towers:

    Wycliffe’s Tower of Babel,

    Shakespeare’s:

    Yond towers, whose wanton tops do buss the clouds
    - Troilus and Cressida, Act IV, scene 5

  45. 45 45 Ken B

    @Joel: Yes, I know it means Wycliffe used it. Wycliffe came *before* Thomas More. You claimed More’s was the earliest known use.

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