Can You Use Whose for Inanimate Objects?

by Liz Bureman | 17 comments

Recently, Joe brought my attention to a strange quirk of the English language: we use “whose” for objects. It can sound odd to use a phrase such as, “I placed the iPhone whose screen is broken in the bin,” but it's technically grammatically correct. Don't believe me? Let's discuss.

smartphone with cracked screen against yellow background

If I'm being honest, I'm still not totally comfortable using “whose” for inanimate objects. I will usually rephrase the sentence to avoid it and create a more natural flow. However, a few of you wrote asking about using “which” in place of “whose”, and I wanted to address those questions and figure out if “which” in that case was a proper use of the word.

The sample phrase, for the sake of simplicity: “I placed the iPhone whose screen was broken in the bin.”

Several commenters on that previous post asked if it wouldn't be correct to write, “I placed the iPhone which screen was broken in the bin.”

The short answer is no.

Definition: Whose

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines whose as: a possessive adjective meaning “of or relating to whom or which.” So it's a possessive form, but it extends beyond ownership. It can also be used to mark general association. (Reminder: possessive pronouns include my, your, our, theirs, etc.)

When to use “whose”

  1. Use the word “whose” as an interrogative pronoun to refer to a person who has some form of relation to whatever follows it.
    Example: Whose dog is this?
  1. Use the word “whose” as a relative pronoun to connect a clause or phrase to a noun or pronoun, whether it refers to a person or a thing.
    Example: This is John, whose dog can jump the fence. (If the fence-jumping dog is essential for the sentence and context, you can drop the comma.)
  1. Remember that “whose” can be used to show possession by inanimate things, as it is the genitive form of “which.”
    This one is a bit more controversial, as many argue inanimate objects cannot own things, so they cannot be referred to with the pronoun “who” or its possessive form. But technically, “whose” is still correct usage in these cases.
    Example from The Great Gatsby: “I…ran for a huge black knotted tree whose massed leaves made a fabric against the rain.”

Can “whose” be used for an inanimate object?

“Whose” sounds most natural when it's used for animate objects, like people and animals, and other things that breathe and possess the life force.

Apparently there are folks out there who share the opinion that “whose” for inanimate objects shouldn't be used because it sounds weird.

But think about it: what else are we going to use?

Whose Has ALWAYS Been Used for Inanimate Objects

We've talked about the fact that the English language is always changing and evolving, but this particular piece of usage hasn't evolved since the fourteenth century.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says the eighteenth century was when grammar nitpickers started to cast aspersions on “whose” and inanimate objects, which basically means that we as casual linguists will never be content with what we have.

“Whose” vs. “Of Which”

So what do we do to resolve this apparent tension? Some have suggested replacing “whose” with the even less user-friendly “of which”. That might work in some cases, but for the most part, it just sounds stilted and awkward and unnecessarily formal. Compare these two sentences:

That table, whose legs are uneven, has been in my family for decades.

That table, the legs of which are uneven, has been in my family for decades.

Then again, you could always take my favorite approach to grammatical conundrums, and rewrite the sentence completely to avoid the issue entirely:

That table with the uneven legs has been in my family for decades.

No more problems of inanimateness! Any of the three techniques above are technically correct, though. Just be sure your language flows smoothly, no matter which way you approach the dilemma. And, as a PSA, if you choose to go with “whose,” make sure you're not using “who's” which is the contracted form of “who is” and completely wrong for this purpose.

Why You Can't Use “Which” to Replace “Whose”

Which cannot be swapped for whose. You could use of which if the sentence is rephrased (e.g., “I placed the iPhone, the screen of which was broken, in the bin.”). But simply replacing “whose” with “which” doesn't work.

Why? Because “which” isn't a possessive pronoun.

“Whose” defines some sort of ownership, but “which” by itself doesn't. Dictionary.com has several definitions for “which” and “whose”, but not until “which” adds prepositions does it become a possessive (e.g. of which, on which).

On its own, “which” is more of a questioning word that needs additional specification to determine exactly what you're talking about.

Personally, I'd much rather rewrite the sentence than go back and forth about “which” and “whose” on inanimate objects. It's generally the best way to avoid debate, and pretty universally accepted as an okay way of putting together a sentence.

Do you use whose for inanimate objects? Or do you rephrase the sentence like I do? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Let's put this lesson to practice by first writing five sentences using “whose” (e.g. “I placed the iPhone whose screen was broken in the bin.” and then rewriting those five sentences, so they don't sound weird (e.g. “I place the iPhone with the broken screen in the bin.”)

When you've written your five “whose” sentences and five rewritten sentences, share them in the Pro Practice Workshop. Then, make sure to comment on a few practices by your fellow writers to let them know if they got it right!

Good luck!

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Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

17 Comments

  1. Adam Hughes

    Maybe we need a new word or construct whose sole purpose is to replace the use of “whose” for inanimate objects.

    One candidate is “which’s,” whose confusion with “witches” could be delicious.

    Another possibility would be to wriggle the apostrophe from “that’s” so that “thats” could play with “its”, whose legacy of frustration is immense.

    Perhaps a more enlightened approach would be to ALWAYS personify our inanimate objects, whose feelings may be hurt even though they don’t exist.

    Of course, that tack leaves room for human error, whose proliferation has already left us with an altered dictionary.

    After all, we’re dealing with English, whose history is filled with offshoots and new words’ popping into existence to accommodate our slangish tongues.

    Did you know, for example, that obsessing on the intricacies of “whose” might be classified as a type of “geekery,” whose definition includes the notion of obsessive devotion to a topic?

    Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile endeavor, whose ultimate denouement could benefit all of mankind.

    The greater good notwithstanding, this is a conundrum whose resolution will have to wait until a later date.

    This has been a wonderful and thought-provoking use of a lunch hour, whose time has now expired.

    Reply
    • AB

      It took me a moment to realize what you’d done! And then I thought, “Yes. Here is a paragraph whose wit I can appreciate.

    • Adam Hughes

      Nice addendum! This has the makings of an annoying parlor game … call it “Whose Inanimate Object?”.

  2. Jay Warner

    First of all, I would not use “whose” when describing an inanimate object. I wouldn’t even use “which”. Both examples in this blog post are awkward, in my opinion. However, I liked the challenge of coming up with ten good sentences using “whose”. I might change my mind about how useful the word “whose” could be. Here are my sentences:

    1. The pram was unsteady, a baby’s travel vehicle whose springs had worn out long ago.

    2. In all my life I have never seen a pen whose ink lasted as long as the letters I wanted to write.

    3. I have many broken dolls whose limbs are akimbo or even missing.

    4. Freed from the tangle of cords, my headphones resembled a bird’s nest whose owners had fled.

    5. Blessed is the pair of shoes whose soles still have traction on snowy streets.

    6. The clock whose hour hand is missing is still on the dresser.

    7. In my eagerness to get on the road, I accidentally picked up the coat whose pocket was ripped.

    8. I saw the book whose pages had been razored out by a fiend.

    9. Give me the piano whose keys need tuning and I’ll give you the guitar in return.

    10. Put the branches whose tips are still green in one pile.

    Reply
    • AB

      I found it awkward as well, although in some places it actually seems to fit. I think I would rather reconstruct the sentences to avoid the awkward construction.

    • RhonDee

      Yikes! Don’t give in to this kind of writing. It’s forcing you to come up with bad sentences.

  3. AB

    1.
    I found my book, whose cover had been ripped
    off, lying behind the couch.

    2.
    We will ban the books whose seditious writing
    fueled this insurrection!

    3.
    It was a charming cottage, whose gardens were
    enclosed in white picket fences.

    4.
    The protestors avoided the town whose council
    had set up stringent regulations for public gatherings.

    5.
    The Christmas tree, whose twinkling lights could
    be seen through the window, was a cheerful touch.

    6.
    A little corner shop served fragrant coffees,
    whose aroma reached out and drew passersby from the street.

    7.
    The Thermos bottle, whose lid fit tightly and
    securely, kept my drink hot for hours.

    8.
    We gathered around the campfire, whose bright
    flames leaped high into the night.

    9.
    Kansas is a state whose population is largely
    conservative.

    10.
    Santa Claus is a seasonal icon whose likeness is
    seen everywhere around Christmas time.

    Reply
  4. Rosalie Parker

    Isn’t it sometimes worded as in, “The iPhone which screen is broken…”?

    Reply
  5. Helaine Grenova

    1) The bookshelf, whose shelves were filled with books, had a strong leftwards tilt.
    2) It was strange to have an inkstand whose bottle was as emerald green as the jewels inlaid in the wood.
    3) The milk crate, whose wooden slates had been painted an appalling shade of chartreuse, had been left outside the greengrocers.
    4) The clock whose hands were broken could not tell time.
    5) The mirror, whose frame was chipped and broken, still provided a beautiful reflection.
    6) The movie, whose main character was killed in a sudden turn of events, was poorly attended.
    7) It is not unusual for me to have a kindle whose data bank is full.
    8) The Penn State marching Blue Band, whose membership includes more trumpeters then the band at my school, is known nation wide.
    9) No one knows why that family keeps the bed whose bed springs are broken.
    10) The backpack is heavy due to the weight of the books whose information will be important to the studious child.

    Reply
    • AB

      It begins to sound more normal after you write a few, doesn’t it?

    • Helaine Grenova

      Kinda…you really have only two ways to put “whose” in there without destroying the structural integraty of the sentence

    • RhonDee

      I know these sentences are in response to the challenge, but I don’t agree with the challenge. Why force any writer to practice using a word incorrectly just to see if it can be done, or to get the writer use to hearing a word used incorrectly? The editor is coming out in me. If you approach your writing this way, unless you’re publishing without an editor, which is unwise, none of these sentences will escape closer scrutiny. We editors love writers who can first edit themselves. These are good examples where rewriting the sentences tightens their structure.
      The filled bookshelf had a strong left tilt. The bookshelf, filled with books, tilted to the left. (If there’s something else on the bookshelf other than books, it’s not necessary to say there were books on the shelves, and in the second sentence, does it matter whether the tilt to the left was strong?)
      The inkstand had a bottle as emerald green as the jewels inlaid in the wood.
      A milk crate painted an appalling shade of chartreuse was outside the greengrocers.
      (In the next sentence, it’s redundant to point out a broken clock can’t “keep” time – clocks don’t “tell” anything.)
      The mirror was unscathed within the chipped and broken frame. (Something or someone must be standing before the mirror to reflect beauty.)
      It is not unusual for my Kindle’s data bank to be full.
      The nationally known Pen State marching Blue Band has more trumpeters than my school band.
      No one knows why that family keeps broken bed springs.
      And so on ….

  6. Natalia

    Em… as far as I know in sentences like “I placed the iPhone whose screen is broken in the bin” you should use “which”.
    “I placed the iPhone which screen is broken in the bin”. So what is all the discussion about?

    Reply
    • Rosalie Parker

      I’m an old grandma who was taught in grade school that this use of “which” is proper wording. :-/

  7. AB

    I found myself wanting to reconstruct many of my sentences using “with a,” as in: The Thermos bottle with a tight lid kept my drink hot for hours. Or the sentence Natalia and Rosalie are working with, “I placed the iPhone with a broken screen in the bin.” Or perhaps, “I placed the iPhone, which had a broken screen, in the bin.”

    Reply
  8. Clickety Keys

    I’m a rephraser. I probably would have said:

    Our family is a bunch of pack rats. We’ve kept that table for decades even though its legs are uneven.

    Reply
  9. RhonDee

    Interesting, but “whose” is never inanimate, no matter how it sounds, in my opinion. Speech is not the best judge of correct usage for the written word because many of us have lazy speech patterns or consistently use the wrong word. If we do this often enough because we believe it sounds better, we’ll have to change word definition and use all the time. Unless I’m directly quoting someone, I would never use “whose” this way. I don’t understand why you would WANT to deliberately construct sentences this way. The rewrite is a far better sentence. Never be afraid of the rewrite.

    Reply

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