"whose" for both people and nouns that do not refer to people

Discussion in 'English Only' started by drei_lengua, Nov 6, 2006.

  1. drei_lengua

    drei_lengua Senior Member

    Hello everyone,

    The word "whose" obviously relates to the word "who", which relates to people. Why doesn't English have a word to use when referring to nouns that are not people.

    For example, the following sentences are correct.

    1. The car, whose battery is dead, will not start.
    2. The man, whose wife is from Japan, is learning Japanese.

    However, I am wondering why there is no word for a noun that is not a person. Why use the word "whose" to refer to a car. Did English ever have such a word or has it always been "whose" to refer to both people and non-people nouns?

    I look forward to your responses.

  2. Conrado Herrera Senior Member

    Practice makes the teacher. A language is a product of millions of people. Experience shows there is no necessary such word.

  3. Joelline

    Joelline Senior Member

    USA (W. Pennsylvania)
    American English
    Someone who has access to the OED could tell you more about when this phenomenon began. At least as far back as the 18th century, "whose" has been considered the possessive of both "who" and "which."

    Those who dislike this use of "who" for inanimate objects usually use "of which"; however, this can produce extremely awkward and stilted sentences: The car of which the battery is dead...!!
  4. GEmatt

    GEmatt Senior Member

    La Côte, Switzerland
    English/BE, Français/CH, Deutsch/CH (rustier & rustier)
    Sorry, isn't "thats" the usual word, or am I totally misinterpreting the question? I learned that "whose" for humans, and "thats" for non-humans (animals and inanimate objects)..
  5. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Somewhere deep in one of the possessives threads there is discussion about whether inanimate objects can own things (and hence need apostrophe s). Part of the answer is that in English we don't often talk about "the table's legs" or "the car's battery".

    This is essentially the same question.
    In practice, if I wanted to express the ideas contained in:
    The car, whose battery is dead, will not start.
    I would say something like:
    The car won't start. Its battery is dead.
    - or (a slightly different interpretation of the original sentence).
    The car with the dead battery won't start.

    I wouldn't ever use that's as a possessive, would I?
    That's is an abbreviation for that is, or that has.

    The other part of the answer is located in a book whose current location escapes my mind. It says that the use of whose for inanimate objects is as ancient as the hills (or words to that effect).
  6. LV4-26

    LV4-26 Senior Member

    That's what I was taught...(was it in 1964?)
    But I don't remember saying of which ever since. :)
    I believe I'd use the car with the dead battery, as Panj suggested.
  7. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Fowler was prone to moments of whimsy.
    In the section on whose = of which, in which, with which, he gives as an example (paraphrased):
    You could use whose and say:
    This book, from whose concentrated harvest of wisdom we .....
    - or you could say:
    This book, from the concentrated harvest of wisdom of which we .....
    Fowler's Modern English Usage (Second edition)
  8. drei_lengua

    drei_lengua Senior Member

    Hello everyone,

    I agree that my sentence "The car, whose battery is dead, will not start." sounds strange and can be re-worded to sound better. However, I was just trying to illustrate an example of "whose" with an inanimate object.

    Panjandrum's sentence "The other part of the answer is located in a book whose current location escapes my mind." is a much better example illustrating the use of "whose" to refer to an inanimate object.

    But don't you all think it still sounds weird to use "whose" with an inanimate object? I wish there were another word to use.

  9. Tresley

    Tresley Senior Member

    Yorkshire / United Kingdom
    British English
    Well, this is a hard question, and you are right. It does sound strange...when you think about it.

    I can only think that we just avoid it, without realising it. We just do! We use 'that', 'which' and 'with a' instead.

    For Panjandrum's example I would naturally have said "the other part of the answer is in a book that/which I can't find at the moment".

    It wouldn't occur to me to use 'whose' for inanimate objects.

    Someone think of an example that can't be changed! 'Whose' answer is undeniable! (Only joking - With an undeniable answer!)
  10. nikkieli Senior Member

    Bulgaria, Bulgarian
    Hi, everybody,
    I 've just read the thread on restrictive/non-restrictive sentences and I started to think about the usage of the interrogative pronoun 'whose'. In Bulgaria we have always been taught that it can refer both to animate and inanimate objects; I even consulted my "Advanced Grammar in Use"-Cambridge University Press and it states the same.
    Would you, please clarify if 'whose' refers to non-animate objects primarily in everyday conversations, is this the usage rule in AE? I am puzzled because I've somehow sensed that 'whose' is prioritizingly 'human':confused: no matter what they taught us. Thank you.
  11. Siberia

    Siberia Senior Member

    UK-Wales - English
    There is also a thread on "whose" on WR if you'd like to look at that first.
  12. cexilia New Member

    Argentina - Spanish
    Hello!! As far as I know, as I was taught, "whose" is only used when referring to people.
    That example about the table was a bit confusing to me because I couldn`t understand what that "whose" was doing there, if there was no human reference.
    I hope I was helpful! Bye.
  13. Tim~!

    Tim~! Senior Member

    Leicester, UK
    UK — English
    It is used for both, although it does sound a little strange when used with inanimate objects.

    The reason is that it is the possessive form of 'who', which is for animate objects only. The inanimate equivalent of 'who' is 'which'.

    However, there is no form *which's* and in the case where this is needed, you either need to rearrange the sentence or use 'whose', even though it corresponds to 'which' rather than 'who'.
  14. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    I don't have a problem with a sentence like:

    She found herself in one long gallery whose walls were covered with portraits.

    In order to use "which", it would have to be changed to:

    She found herself in one long gallery, the walls of which were covered with portraits.

    This second construction seems more awkward to me than the first.
  15. jdenson

    jdenson Senior Member

    Houston, Texas
    USA / English
    Although often criticized, the use of whose to refer to inanimate objects is perfectly correct, in both the written and spoken language.
    "The tabooing of whose inanimate is on a level with that of the PREPOSITION AT END; both are great aids to flexibility; both are well established in older as well as in colloquial English;... 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, & present intelligibility, & obvious convenience, on their side..."
    ---H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage

  16. winklepicker

    winklepicker Senior Member

    English (UK)
    We like people who think for themselves! As the above posts demonstrate, whose can be used for things as well as people. But as you have correctly spotted - and again shown by the posts above - native speakers do indeed tend to 'prioritise human' by avoiding the whose constructions with things.
  17. keepsakes

    keepsakes Member

    English/Chinese Canada/China
    Personally I can hear "The car, whose battery is dead, will not run" and not feel like there is anything wrong or strange with it.

    As far as I know, "whose" is the correct word to use in the genitive case for both animate and inanimate objects.

    "My idea, whose validity has only been verified by me, appears reasonable."
  18. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    There is no doubt that an elegant sentence with whose referring to something inanimate is much better than a clumsy sentence avoiding it. But there remains, at least in my usage, a tendency to express sentences differently where possible.

    So, in related thread about an antique table with a jade inlay top I listed as my first preference:
    We have an antique table with a jade inlay top.

    ... and commented graphically on the whose version:
    We have an antique table whose top has a jade inlay :eek:
  19. pinpirulin Member

    Surrey, UK
    To sum up, what is better, "there are sequences whose terms grow bigger and bigger as n grows" or is the rephrasing "ther eare sequences the terms of which grow...", or a third possibility I cannot think of?
    (I am writing some lecture notes, so I need proper written English)
    Thank you
  20. pinpirulin Member

    Surrey, UK
    << Response to deleted post. >>
    My question here though was whether I can say "whose terms" referring to a sequence, or whether the use of "whose" is not desirable in this situation (inwhich case, could you please suggest a better alternative?)

    Many thanks again
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 1, 2011
  21. henrylee100 Senior Member

    I personally used whose for inanimate nouns for quite some time until I got this British editor to proof-read some texts I wrote and she changed all my inanimate whose's to the .......... of which, commenting that using whose to refer back to inanimate nouns was OK in informal writing/speech but best avoided in more formal writing so it all probably depends on your register, if you're writing to a friend then there would be nothing wrong with saying something like 'I have this old car whose battery is busted' but if you were writing a formal complaint to the manufacturer you'd wanna write something like, ' you sold me a car with a dead battery' or whatever.
  22. grubble

    grubble Senior Member

    South of England, UK
    British English
    << Response to deleted post. >>

    "there are sequences whose terms grow bigger and bigger as n grows" :tick:
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 1, 2011
  23. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    << Moderator note.
    Please do not attempt to re-express the mathematical expression in pinpirulin's sentence.
    The question is about the use of "whose".
    panjandrum >>
  24. cyberpedant

    cyberpedant Senior Member

    North Adams, MA
    English USA, Northeast, NYC
    In my humble opinion this is perfectly acceptable. And in the judgment of the OED, whose opinion does not require the expression of humility:
    "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."

    Note that this acceptance was current in the fourteenth century.
  25. pinpirulin Member

    Surrey, UK
    Thank you cyberpedant, that is a very clear answer.

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