John Larrysson Column: Whose for Objects
文章日期:2013年6月12日

The word who is generally used for people and not things. Can the word whose, a form of the word who, be used for things? This leads us to another fake rule. According to this fake rule, the word whose can only be used for people. This rule is another fake because in normal English usage whose is used to refer to objects as well as people. However it is a style choice and sentences can be written to avoid using whose for objects.

The camera whose USB port was broken is on the table.
The camera that had a broken USB port is on the table.

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To test what is normal English usage I look at the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English. They both showed that the word whose can be used to describe objects. In the British National Corpus I took a random selection of sentences using the word whose and checked to see if they referred to people or objects. In only two thirds of the sentences the word whose referred to people. Both sentences shown above are correct. Let's look at one of the example sentences in the British National Corpus.

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British National Corpus Example:

They returned to the police station, passing the parish church on whose steps a June bride and her attendants were being photographed.

Rendell, Ruth (1981) The best man to die. London: Arrow Books Ltd

This sentence could be rewritten as:

They returned to the police station, passing the parish church on the steps of which a June bride and her attendants were being photographed.

or

They returned to the police station, passing the parish church. On the steps of the church a June bride and her attendants were being photographed.

All of these forms are correct. However the first version is less awkward stylistically.

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The Oxford English Dictionary also lists the word whose being use for objects. “In reference to a thing or things (inanimate or abstract)” (The word whose was originally the genitive of the neuter of the word what, but in later use was the genitive of the word which and usually replaced by of which except where the sentence would be too awkward.)

The word whose is usually used to refer to people. In addition, the word whose is used with organisations such as companies, political parties, cities and so on. This includes objects such as buildings (i.e. a church) or geography that represent organisations of people. While not wrong, it is less common to use the word whose with objects such as a USB. It is very common to use the word whose with objects that represent people. In the end the writer can choose the style they prefer.

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Related Articles: Who or That

Who or That for Animals

Who or That for Organisations of People

by John Larrysson

JohnLarrysson@gmail.com

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.