Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Gear Up for National Grammar Day!

Tomorrow is National Grammar Day, and in observance of the occasion, I'd like to recommend three resources that will prove valuable to anyone interested in grammar—and if you are reading this column, I'd say that would be you. To give you an idea how I use them, I'll tell how they each entered into my research on a point of grammar I recently looked into.

Last month, I read a column from fellow Visual Thesaurus contributors Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner, in which they claimed that whose could have only animate antecedents.  I was going to write a column in response to theirs, but Erin Brenner beat me to it. If you haven't already read it, go do it now!

As I thought about the whose issue, I realized I had made a flawed argument in a comment I'd left on Glickman and Rubiner's column. I wrote that even in Old English, hwæs ("whose") was the possessive form of both hwa ("who") and hwæt ("what"). There are two problems with this rebuttal. First of all, what is an interrogative pronoun, used for asking questions, and G&R were writing about relative pronouns. Although it's true that whose is the possessive form of what in Old English, that doesn't mean that it's also the possessive of the relative pronoun which. Second, even though whose was used as the possessive form of what in Old English, it doesn't seem to be now. If I look at something and ask, "Whose is this?", I'm expecting a person for an answer. In a message to the American Dialect Society email list (in a thread that coincidentally began within a day or so of the publication of G&R's column), Larry Horn observed that if he asked "Whose leg was broken?", an acceptable answer would be "Ken's," but not "The dining room table's."

This restriction might be part of the semantics of English at this point, or it might just be a matter of real-world situations. If the object I'm asking about belongs to a thing, either I know what kind of thing it belongs to or I don't. If it's a rearview mirror, for instance, I might ask, "What car does this belong to?" or "Whose car did this come from?" (with whose referring to the person who owns the car, incidentally). If it's something I don't recognize at all, I won't be asking what it belongs to; I'll be asking, "What's this?"

But whatever the reason for the badness of interrogative whose referring to inanimate objects, that's not what G&R (or anyone else writing rules about whose with inanimates) have in mind. They're only concerned with relative whose. This is probably because nobody uses interrogative whose to refer to inanimates, so there's little need to write about it. 

So does the picture change when I focus just on relative whose? In fact, Old English didn't use who or which as relative pronouns. It used forms of the demonstrative pronoun that, as well as a relativizing particle þe. (The character thorn, þ, is written these days as "th".) My question at this point was when who and which began to be used as relative pronouns, and it turns out that this happened in the early Middle English period. Slightly later, the possessive form for who came to be used also as the possessive form for which. I got this information from the online Oxford English Dictionary, the first resource I'm recommending. An individual subscription is expensive, but (as I was delighted to discover) some libraries have a subscription, which you can use for free if you have a library card. Well, not free; your taxes pay for it, but you get the idea. If you go to the site, a dialog box will ask for either your subscriber number or your library card number, and if your library subscribes, you're in! What's especially nice about the online OED compared to the print version is that you can use your browser's search function within entries to find words you're looking for, much more easily than scanning a page with just your eyes.

My next question was when the idea arose that whose shouldn't be used this way. The go-to source for questions about when and how just about any prescriptive rule of English grammar came to be is Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, the second resource I'm recommending. This book is well worth the $20 or less that it costs to have a copy of your own. According to MWDEU, "No one seems to have thought the use worthy of notice until the 18th century." Robert Lowth was the first to note it, in 1762. He was willing to accept it in poetry, but only because of the use of personification in poetry. Joseph Priestley in 1768 expressed a personal distaste for it, but didn't entirely condemn it. Even so, once they "had let the genie of disapproval out of the bottle, however tentatively, there was no putting it back."

Of course, the only reason there would be any question at all about whose for inanimates is the fact that whose is so clearly related to the pronoun who, which actually is restricted to animates. Who is to whose, the reasoning must have gone, as which is to... what? Quoting Bill Walsh, Erin Brenner notes that whitchse doesn't exist. Nor, I might add, does which's—or does it? So to fill in the analogy, you're left with either having whose fill both slots, or using the of which circumlocution.

There's also another relative pronoun that historically hasn't had a possessive form: the relative pronoun that. In fact, there's an explanation for this: That isn't actually a relative pronoun. This claim comes from the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, my third recommendation. This doorstop of a book goes for $180, but maybe someone who loves you will give it to you as a birthday present, as my wife did in 2003. This book comprehensively covers just about everything you can think of about English grammar, right down to listing the individual verbs that take different kinds of complements, and getting into the nitty gritty of why the relative that is so different from the other relative pronouns. It lays out several reasons that it makes more sense to analyze that as a subordinator, the same one you have in sentences like I said that I would go. (They're on pages 1056-1057.)

However, that looks so darn much like a relative pronoun used as a subject in phrases like the house that got sold, or an object in phrases like the house that Jack built, that here and there, speakers have begun to give it a possessive form, too: that's. I've heard my 12-year-old son say it, and he was rather surprised to find out that there was anything unusual about it. Larry Horn, again from the ADS thread, Googled "the guy that's" and found examples such as the guy that's mother was looking for him, the guy that's mother died, and the guy that's wife just had a baby. He also found a pathetic kid that's mother hates him. You can also find that's referring to inanimate things, as in this example I found: the company that's CEO confessed to the company being a"series of misses". I see that this word has also appeared in one of the comments on Brenner's article. There was even one contributor to the ADS thread for whom possessive relative that's was so normal, and who had so thoroughly absorbed the restriction of whose to animates, that he considered that's to be better English than whose with an inanimate object! If you don't like whose with inanimate objects, you might want to learn to like these new alternatives. Unlike who, the words which and that were never restricted to animate things, so the forms which's and that's can't be disparaged on those grounds.  

And if you do like grammar, put the online OED, and the print versions of MWDEU and CGEL into your first tier of references!


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.

Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Thursday March 3rd 2011, 10:34 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
Good article! I personally have no problem with 'whose' for inanimates. It sounds a little stilted to me, but 'that's' as a substitute (for animates or inanimates) just sounds wrong. To my ears, 'The table whose leg is broken' is clearly preferable to 'The table the leg of which is broken' or 'The table that's leg is broken.'

'Whose' in this context fills one of those holes that English has, like 'their' increasingly does for the gender-neutral singular possessive: 'This student cheated on their exam.' Klunky, but better than using 'its' or 'his or her.' That's not to say, though, that 'that's' could grow in popular usage and eventually replace 'whose.' Clearly some people think it sounds just fine.

But at this point, it seems like there are so many inconsistencies in English that we don't even remark on, that insisting that 'who' and 'whose' should both refer only to animates is, itself, inconsistent! Maybe if we spoke Esperanto. But we don't, do we?
Friday March 4th 2011, 5:24 PM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
Not directly on point, but I can't resist. In W.M. Spackman's novel "An Armful of Warm Girl," The protagonist is represented thus:

So in the end he drove into New York lustily singing:
Almighty Sir, of Whose my soul
An ancient indecision is.
an undergraduate pastiche the prosody of which, and the syntax, still pleased him.

Parse that one, me hearties!

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

"Whose" an Animate Object?
- 12 Comments
Simon and Julia wage war against "who" and "whose" for inanimate objects.
Grammar Bite: Who's That?
- 22 Comments
Erin Brenner takes issue with the "who"/"that" distinction for people.
Should "whose" never be used for inanimate objects? Erin begs to differ.