The Writer’s Toolbox – Whose Line Is It Anyway

Part II

In last week’s Toolbox we sorted out the meanings of whose (indicates possession) and who’s (a contraction of who is). This week we’ll look beyond spelling at usage?and debunk a non-rule that’s been confusing writers for a long time.

People and Animals

Whose is the possessive form of the pronouns who and which. There’s no question that it applies to animate objects?people and animals?even if they’re described generically:

Example A: I asked whose party she would be attending. Here, whose refers to some unnamed person or group of people. It’s clearly correct.

Example B: I joined the student group whose activities most interested me. The speaker is talking about a student group’s activities, and since the group is presumably made of humans, there’s no issue here either.

Example C: Her dog is the one whose tail is wagging. Animals?whether pets or not?are considered animate objects and always take whose.

Inanimate Objects

When it comes to using whose for inanimate objects?things that aren’t alive in the same way as humans or animals?things become tricky. Correct or not?

Example D: Hand me the bottle whose label was smudged.

There’s a “rule”?note the quotes?that says never to use whose for an inanimate object like a plant, vehicle, house, book, or anything else that can’t interact or show feeling (that we know of). According to that rule, Example D would be incorrect; it should use of which.

You don’t have to follow that rule.

Although some may insist otherwise, there is no grammar or usage rule forbidding the use of whose for inanimate objects. In fact, applying the rule and substituting of which or something similar can lead to clunky, awkward prose at best. At worst, it might make your writing incomprehensible. Contrast Example D with the following:

Example E: Hand me the bottle of which the label was smudged. This sentence is unwieldy; in fact, so much so that the reader may need to take a second look to figure it out. Example D is clearer, cleaner, and perfectly acceptable.

Two more to compare:

Example F: The dealer brought out a car whose trunk appeared damaged.

Example G: The dealer brought out a car of which the trunk appeared damaged.

Example F?which uses whose to refer to an inanimate object?is much less stilted and is therefore easier to read.

Workarounds

What if your professor or editor is a stickler for this “rule” and insists that you avoid whose for inanimate objects? In that case, rework the sentence to avoid both the much-maligned whose and the clunkiness of the of which construction.

Example H: Hand me the bottle with the smudged label.

Example I: The dealer brought out a car, but its trunk appeared damaged.

There’s always a workaround, but when in doubt, remember that whose can refer to any object, whether animate or inanimate.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.

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