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"Whose" an Animate Object?

When robot butlers earn their rightful place in Consumer Reports, I'll let that august publication determine whether the product under scrutiny is an "it" or a "him." At this point in the history of humankind, however, there's little cause for speculation as to what is or is not an animate object.

Surely, proclamations like "It's alive!" — as opposed to "He's alive!" — have muddied the waters since at least 1931. And speakers of various languages assign gender designations to nouns, producing results like "das Mädchen" — Mädchen is German for "girl" but the definite article "das" signifies a gender-neutral, i.e. "neuter," noun, with its intimation of inanimation (let's not even get INTO the German insistence on capitalizing common nouns). But in 2011 America, there's no doubt as to what is an "it" and what is a "him" or "her."

And yet you frequently come across sentences like this: "As the Houston show was being announced, another [Norton] Simon show was at the Princeton University Art Museum, complete with a catalog whose cover featured Van Gogh's portrait of his mother." Why, pray tell, must we refer to the cover of the catalog with the word "whose?" I'll tell you why: The writer of this article felt it was just too awkward to say, "complete with a catalog the cover of which featured Van Gogh's portrait of his mother." There, I said it — "the cover of which"; was that so terrible? Did you realize when I said "the cover of which" that I was referring to the cover of the catalog? Yes, you did. Is it necessary to confer a beating heart upon the cover of the catalog? No, it isn't.

To the credit of writers who go with "whose" under such circumstances, there are instances in which the "of which" construction is unduly awkward. That's when you put on your thinking cap and reword the sentence (or even split it into two sentences). Just as there's more than one way to skin a cat (ew), there's more than one way to present an idea on the page.

I, for one, prefer to chance a moment of awkwardness than risk that the reader stops reading altogether, responding, however subconsciously, to a fundamental failure of logic. I can't read a sentence with this use of "whose" in it without a pang of cognitive dissonance; that little voice in my head says, "The cover of a catalog is a thing, not a person," and then I start thinking about that instead of what the writer is trying to convey.

Furthermore, "animate" vs. "inanimate" is about as black-and-white a distinction as you'll find when parsing questions of language. Thus the use of "whose" when referring to the possession of a sentient being can be enjoyed without hesitation. Even when we're talking about personal property — I should probably just cite cats and dogs here, but the Three-Fifths Compromise, recently not read aloud on the House floor, comes to mind — it's crystal clear that the subject of the possessive is a so-called "animate antecedent." There's no need to do the grammatical math, no need to convert "you and I" into "we" or "you and me" into "us"; the only calculation is "living or not." Shouldn't we just enjoy the certainty either way?

(And while I'm up here on my high horse, I often come across instances in which the living are robbed of their humanity by careless scribes. This is more common in poor marketing copy and clumsy business correspondence than, say, a Los Angeles Times story comparing famous local art collectors, but it's still all too common. Men and women [and, for that matter, cats and dogs] should be referred to as "who" not "that." For instance, you wouldn't say, "The copywriter that injured herself trying to dismount from her high horse was named Julia Rubiner"; you'd say, "The copywriter who injured herself trying to dismount from her high horse was named Julia Rubiner." You might be forgiven for getting this wrong if you were in, oh, I dunno, elementary school, but even then, your teacher should correct you.)

For all its riches, English lacks a "whose" for inanimate objects. Perhaps it's time we invented one. Please leave your submissions in the comments below.


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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 16th 2011, 1:17 AM
Comment by: Patricia H. (Philadelphia, PA)
Isn't "whats" used in Cockney English to refer to an inanimate object?
Wednesday February 16th 2011, 7:09 AM
Comment by: Chocoholic (New Delhi India)
Maybe "whats" could be used. But it doesn't sound right. How about something like "whiches", maybe a little modified? Or probably "whose" is fine for both. Everyone is comfortable using it. I don't know.
Fantastic article, by the way. Things like using "that" instead of "who" annoy me too.
But I've also been thinking- isn't the invention of language simply for communication and expression? Then if the implied meaning is understood by the other party being spoken to, why bother about minute grammatical errors?
Wednesday February 16th 2011, 7:41 AM
Comment by: Sue H. (Wooster, OH)
Wonderful article! I consistently correct my high school students concerning the use of "that" vs. "who." Unfortunately, many sources OK the random use of "that" to refer to any object, animate or inanimate. When they use "that" it grates on my soul; we forget our humanity often enough without emphasizing it in our writing.
Wednesday February 16th 2011, 7:46 AM
Comment by: Joe ..."crazy about words" (greenport, NY)
I like "the cover of which"....it gives just enough time for a pause which emphasizes and allows us to picture what's being said.

"What's" ain't bad if we could get used to hearing ourselves say it!
Wednesday February 16th 2011, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Annie G. (Gladwyne, PA)
I'm oddly fascinated by those times when we think there should be a word (e.g., a "whose" for inanimate objects), but there isn't.

Maybe "whose" instead of "the cover of which" is like "they" used instead of "he or she": in the interest of communication the main wish is to use fewer words rather than to be technically correct, to get to the point with the fewest possible flourishes.

My demographic, by the way, is those people who are philosophically descriptive rather than prescriptive grammarians but who wouldn't split an infinitive if their lives depended on it.
Wednesday February 16th 2011, 8:43 AM
Comment by: Amy R. (Chicago, IL)
I bet that fifty years from now, such "whose" usage will be deemed more broadly acceptable.

Now, what throws me off is when a column with two names in the byline is written in first person singular. The whole thing's about "whose" but I don't know whose thing it is!
Wednesday February 16th 2011, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I respectfully disagree. "Whose" is broadly acceptable for referring to inanimate objects. Says Bryan Garner in "Garner's Modern American Usage":

"'Whose' may usefully refer to things <'an idea whose time has come'>. This use of 'whose,' formerly decried by some 19th-century grammarians and their predecessors, is often an inescapable way of avoiding clumsiness."

Garner notes this usage at stage 5 in his Language Change Index:

"The form is universally adopted except by a few eccentrics. It’s a linguistic 'fait accompli': what was once merely 'de facto' has become accepted as 'de jure.'"

Additionally, you can use "that" to refer to people. Again according to Garner, "Is it permissible to say 'people that,' or must one say 'people who'? The answer is that 'people that' has always been good English, and it’s a silly fetish to insist that 'who' is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans."

If you want to limit your use of "whose" to animate objects and "that" to inanimate objects, you can and you'd be using correct English. But if you run into an awkward construction, you can also use "whose" for inanimate objects and "that" for animated ones and still be using proper English. The constructions are readily understood by English speakers.
Wednesday February 16th 2011, 1:31 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Simon and Julia, you're joking, right? Even in Old English, "hwaes" was the possessive form of who "hwa" (who) and "hwaet" (what).
Wednesday February 16th 2011, 9:33 PM
Comment by: KIS (MN)
Loved your article! I, too, get caught up with "whose" for inanimate objects and wander away from the sentence while my brain thinks of alternatives.

One time I was interviewing for a proofreading job at the local newspaper and jokingly commented that I thought it was funny that the job advertisement used incorrect language (a successful job applicant should be able to use "their" judgement...). I thought it was an inside joke that only proofreaders would understand. Well, the interviewer was taken aback -he had written it. "And what is wrong with it?? Needless to say, I got the job!
Thursday February 17th 2011, 11:01 AM
Comment by: Jan Freeman (MA)
I'm (almost) speechless at seeing such misinformed prescriptivism published at VT.
Thursday February 24th 2011, 12:42 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Julia and Simon, you say that In 2011 America, there is no doubt as to what is an "it" and what is a "him"' or "her", and that men and women [and for that matter cats and dogs] should be referred to as "who" not "that."

So presumably you'd say "There's the man whose leg is broken" or "There's the dog whose leg is broken." I suppose a cat, a horse, or an elephant would receive the same grammatical treatment. But if the broken leg is on a chair or a tripod, your rule would direct you to use "which", as in "There's the chair, the leg of which is broken (or more likely "There's the chair with the broken leg", to avoid the awkwardness of "the leg of which"), but you wouldn't say "There's the chair whose leg is broken" because you reserve "whose" for animate creatures, right? What if a Barbie doll or a ceramic cat or a statue of a dog has a broken leg?

What if the broken leg is attached to a mouse, rat, sparrow, lobster or lizard? How about a butterfly, spider, cockroach, or flea ... is each one of those animals a who or a which?

What if the gender of the animate creature is not known: a cat, dog, horse, elephant, infant or fetus ... are they more like a person or a chair?

What if the "animate creature", say, a human or a dog, is no longer animate; when does that creature cease to be a "him or her" and become an "it"? Surely not immediately after death, especially the death of a person - but on finding the remains of a dead deer in the forest, I suppose we might say that its leg was broken ...

My point (FINALLY!) is that mentioning a catalog whose cover has a certain picture on it is really fine with me. In fact, I think I'll create a line of T-shirts, bumper stickers and rubbery wrist bands emblazoned with the slogan "CHOOSE TO USE WHOSE!" The rule that forbids it places us on too many hills whose slopes are too slippery, and complicates language and life unnecessarily in too many ways!

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday February 24th 2011, 5:16 PM
Comment by: Russell M. B. (Toronto Canada)
From the OED--note the Ian McEwan citation at the end, which is very similar to the one objected to in this article.

whose
3. In reference to a thing or things (inanimate or abstract). Originally the genitive of the neuter what (sense 7); in later use serving as the genitive of which (senses 7 and 8), and usually replaced by of which, except where the latter would produce an intolerably clumsy form.

1382 Wyclif Deut. viii. 9 The loond of oyle and of hony;..whos stones ben yren, and of the hillis of it ben doluen metallys of brasse.
1442 Beckington Corr. (Rolls) II. 213 He hath..taken the townes and castles and forteresses whoos names be specified.
1482 Monk of Evesham lv. (Arb.) 107 A ful glorious walle of crystal hoys heythe no man might see.
1528 Tindale Obed. Chr. Man 130 Loke yer thou lepe, whose literall sence is, doo nothinge sodenly or without avisemente.
1577 Harrison England ii. ii. [v.] (1877) i. 46 Bath, whose see was sometime at Welles.
1602 Shaks. Ham. i. v. 15, I could a Tale vnfold, whose lightest word Would harrow vp thy soule.
1632 Milton L'Allegro 73 Mountains on whose barren brest The labouring clouds do often rest.
1661 Feltham Lusoria, Lett. 65 A Disposition..whose affability may sweeten life.
1760-72 H. Brooke Fool of Qual. (1809) I. 74 A maxim of whose impropriety not St. Anthony himself could persuade him.
1807 Southey Espriella's Lett. (1814) II. 10 The clock, whose huge bell..may be heard five leagues over the plain.
1863 Reade Hard Cash I. 100 The nerve man had prescribed..a medicine..whose effect on the nerves was nil.
1896 Pollock 1st Bk. of Jurispr. vii. 179 Processes extending over two or three centuries, and whose fundamental analogies are..disguised in almost every possible way.
1906 Conrad Mirror of Sea vii. 33 A newspaper of sound principles, but whose staff will persist in `casting' anchors.
1927 E. Bowen Hotel vi. 57 She looked down..and saw a little house, with a blue door whose colour delighted her.
1958 I. Murdoch Bell iv. 47 Toby..marvelled at this light which is no light..and whose strength is seen only in the sharpness of cast shadows.
1968 J. Lyons Introd. Theoretical Linguistics 55 Whether there are, or could be, two languages whose vocabularies are to no degree whatsoever isomorphic with one another is a question with which we need not be concerned.
1981 I. McEwan Comfort of Strangers ix. 122 There were pictures whose context she understood immediately.

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