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Writers Talk About Writing

Grammar Bite: "Of Which" as the Starch in Your Collar

The following is the second part of Erin Brenner's response to the recent piece by Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner, "'Whose' an Animate Object?" In the first part, Erin considered the use of that to refer to people, and here she examines whether whose should be used for inanimate objects.

In their recent article on the Visual Thesaurus, Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner advocate for never using whose for inanimate objects. As in:

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.

Although the writers acknowledge that using of which for inanimate objects is sometimes awkward, they say, "That's when you put on your thinking cap and reword the sentence (or even split it into two sentences)" (emphasis in the original).

Glickman and Rubiner's argument for not using whose for inanimate objects is that doing so would "risk that the reader stops reading altogether, responding, however subconsciously, to a fundamental failure of logic."

Do readers really pause when they see or hear whose representing an object? My guess is that those who are on the lookout for grammar errors might pick up on it, but the rest of the English-speaking world doesn't bat an eyelash. Why? Because using whose to represent an inanimate object is not grammatically wrong and has been correct English for over 600 years.

The Oxford English Dictionary (subscription required) lists the third definition of whose as "in reference to a thing or things (inanimate or abstract)" and notes its first use this way was in 1382 in Wycliffe's Bible. The OED offers examples as recent as 1981 (the text is from the 1989 edition), in case you're tempted to think things have changed.

The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) and Merriam-Webster Online also allow whose to be used for inanimate objects. Says AHD in its usage note for whose:

There is extensive literary precedent for the use of whose with inanimate antecedents, as in The play, whose style is rigidly formal, is typical of the period. In an earlier survey this example was acceptable to a large majority of the Usage Panel.

Usage experts agree. Bill Walsh states in The Elephants of Style, "Whitchse isn't a word, so there's nothing wrong with using whose to refer to things in addition to people." H. W. Fowler accepted it in his Modern English Usage in 1926, and Bryan A. Garner lists the use of whose for things as at stage 5 in his Language-Change Index in Garner's Modern American Usage. Stage 5 is defined as "universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentric)."

Is it wrong to use of which instead of whose? Not at all. As Glickman and Rubiner point out, there's more than one way to say a thing. But copyeditors should use caution before changing whose to of which. If whose sounds out of tune with the rest of the sentence, by all means edit it, whether you pop in of which or recast the sentence. But if whose fits with the rhythm and style of the sentence, we should keep the author's original wording.

"In the starch that stiffens English style," says Fowler, "one of the most effective ingredients is the rule that whose shall refer only to persons; to ask a man to write flexible English, but forbid him whose 'as a relative pronoun of the inanimate', is like sending a soldier on 'active' service & insisting that his tunic collar shall be tight & high; activity & stocks do not agree."

Do you allow whose to refer to inanimate objects in your writing? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday February 24th 2011, 8:04 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Some how, dragging in dusty, old facts to counter an opinion just doesn't seem fair. Really now, isn't citing an 1382 reference, and a Bible at that, a bit much?
Thursday February 24th 2011, 10:24 AM
Comment by: Jim B. (Brandon, FL)
I have an opinion whose point is that when it sounds wrong, rewrite.
Thursday February 24th 2011, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
I can only say that I always stop if I read "whose" referring to an inanimate object. It seems wrong no matter what historical precedent exists. I think that Glickman and Rubiner are right.

I have heard people say "thats", or maybe "that's", in colloquial speech, at least in Australia. Maybe that's the solution.
Thursday February 24th 2011, 1:21 PM
Comment by: John S.
I agree with Graeme and others who are troubled by the use of whose in the sentence describing the catalog. But I also agree with Erin that whose can often do the job better than some awkward reconstruction to avoid it. I can think of cases where whose would not bother me at all. I wonder if part of the problem is the degree of "humanization" involved. I can accept humanizing a play, or even a book, but not a catalog. I see the copyeditor's job as making the author's writing as effective as possible, not as the grammar thug.
Friday February 25th 2011, 8:43 AM
Comment by: Dwight W. (Abilene, TX)
As you meander among the rocks, you might notice a stone whose moss remains undisturbed. Its rolling days are obviously over. Or, is it a rock of which the moss remains intact?
Friday February 25th 2011, 12:52 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Or perhaps a rock with moss intact, Dwight.
Saturday February 26th 2011, 4:34 AM
Comment by: Freda W. (Darlington Australia)
Beautifully re-written Graeme R.! Just goes to show that 'avoiding it' doesn't necessarily require 'an awkward reconstruction'. For me it does need avoiding; its not good to read.
Saturday February 26th 2011, 9:19 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Thanks, Freda! :)

Am I right, in my earlier comment, in thinking that Australians sometimes say "thats" instead of "whose" when referring to inanimate objects. "A book thats day has come and gone." I am an Aussie but I haven't lived there for many years, so I am not sure. I don't think that I have heard it in the United States.
Saturday February 26th 2011, 6:46 PM
Comment by: Freda W. (Darlington Australia)
Yes, I think we say thats for inanimate objects sometimes ~ that is those of us who care! So many people ( not picking on Aussies here) simply don't care what is written. I was going to use an example of "an idea thats time has come" but am sure most would say " an idea whose time has come" so there you are; nothing cut and dried ... but interesting to think about.
Friday March 4th 2011, 1:44 PM
Comment by: Jan Freeman (MA)
Gordon, Erin is using those dusty old facts to show that inanimate "whose" has been standard English for more than six centuries -- surely evidence in its defense.

And she isn't asking us readers if it's wrong; she has shown that it ISN'T wrong. She asked if we cared to use it ourselves. We are free to avoid it, or any other usage, but there are simply no factual grounds for calling it an error.

As Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes, a few (by no means all) usage writers in the 18th and 19th centuries -- a peak time for inventing peeves -- decided to disapprove of it. This does not mean it was ever widely repudiated; I'm surprised Garner even rates it on his Language-Change Index, since its acceptability was never seriously in doubt.

Some more dusty old evidence from MWDEU: "I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul" (Shakespeare)

"The fruit /Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste /Brought death into the world" (Milton)

I recommend reading actual literature instead of dodgy usage advice; you can't possibly hold onto the illusion that inanimate "whose" is wrong when you find it in all the books you love and respect. Can you?
Saturday March 5th 2011, 8:52 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
Yes, I do. Very frequently. Rejecting a relative clause because neither "which" nor "that" have a possessive is silly, in my opinion.
Wednesday March 23rd 2011, 11:21 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
In general I support using "whose" for inanimate things when style recommends it. Yet, as the following excerpt from a New York Times article shows, the phrase can land you in grammatical hot water.

[W]hat we saw from one end of the country to the other was the detritus of an experiment whose own people lamented had lasted far too long.

Pause. Rethink. Recast.

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Grammar Bite: Who's That?
Erin Brenner takes issue with the "who"/"that" distinction when referring to people.
"Whose" an Animate Object?
Should the word "whose" be used with inanimate objects?