Arrant Pedantry

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Whose Pronoun Is That?

In my last post I touched on the fact that whose as a relative possessive adjective referring to inanimate objects feels a little strange to some people. In a submission for the topic suggestion contest, Jake asked about the use of that with animate referents (“The woman that was in the car”) and then said, “On the flip side, consider ‘the couch, whose cushion is blue.’ ‘Who’ is usually used for animate subjects. Why don’t we have the word ‘whichs’ for inanimate ones?”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (one of my favorite books on language; if you don’t already own it, you should buy it now—seriously.) says that it has been in use from the fourteenth century to the present but that it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that grammarians like Bishop Lowth (surprise, surprise) started to cast aspersions on its use.

MWDEU concludes that “the notion that whose may not properly be used of anything except persons is a superstition; it has been used by innumerable standard authors from Wycliffe to Updike, and is entirely standard as an alternative to of which the in all varieties of discourse.” Bryan A. Garner, in his Garner’s Modern American Usage, says somewhat more equivocally, “Whose may usefully refer to things ⟨an idea whose time has come⟩. This use of whose, formerly decried by some 19th-century grammarians and their predecessors, is often an inescapable way of avoiding clumsiness.” He ranks it a 5—“universally adopted except for a few eccentrics”—but his tone leaves one feeling as if he thinks it the lesser of two evils.

But how did we end up in this situation in the first place? Why don’t we have a whiches or thats or something equivalent? MWDEU notes that “English is not blessed with a genitive form for that or which“, but to understand why, you have to go back to Old English and the loss of the case system in Early Middle English.

First of all, Old English did not use interrogative pronouns (who, which, or what) as relative pronouns. It either used demonstrative pronouns—whence our modern that is descended—or the invariable complementizer þe, which we’ll ignore for now. The demonstrative pronouns declined for gender, number, and case, just like the demonstrative and relative pronouns of modern German. The important point is that in Old English, the relative pronouns looked like this:

that
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine Plural
Nominative se þæt sēo þā
Accusative þone þæt þā þā
Genitive þæs þæs þǣre þāra, þǣra
Dative þǣm þǣm þǣre þǣm, þām
Instrumental þȳ, þon þȳ, þon

(Taken from Wikipedia.org. The þ is a thorn, which represents a “th” sound.)

As the Old English case system disappeared, this all reduced to the familiar that, which you can see comes from the neuter nominative/accusative form. The genitive, or possessive, form was lost. And in Middle English, speakers began to use interrogative pronouns as relatives, probably under the influence of French. Here’s what the Old English interrogative pronouns looked like:

who/what
Case Masculine/Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative hwā hwæt hwā/hwæt
Accusative hwone hwæt hwone/hwæt
Genitive hwæs hwæs hwæs
Dative hwǣm hwǣm hwǣm
Instrumental hwȳ hwȳ hwǣm

(Wikipedia didn’t have an article or section on Old English interrogative pronouns, so I borrowed the forms from Wikibooks.)

On the masculine/feminine side, we get the ancestors of our modern who/whom/whose (hwā/hwǣm/hwæs), and on the neuter side, we get the ancestor of what (hwæt). Notice that the genitive forms for the two are the same—that is, although we think of whose being the possessive form of who, it’s historically also the possessive form of what.

But we don’t use what as a relative pronoun (well, some dialects do, but Standard English doesn’t); we use which instead. Which also had the full paradigm of case endings just like who/what that. But rather than bore you with more tables full of weird-looking characters, I’ll cut to the chase: which originally had a genitive form, but it too was lost when the Old English case system disappeared.

So of all the demonstrative and interrogative pronouns in English, only one survived with its own genitive form, who. (I don’t know why who hung on to its case forms while the others lost theirs; maybe that’s a topic for another day.) Speakers quite naturally used whose to fill that gap—and keep in mind that it was originally the genitive form of both the animate and inanimate forms of the interrogative pronoun, so English speakers originally didn’t have any qualms about employing it with inanimate relative pronouns, either.

But what does that mean for us today? Well, on the one hand, you can argue that whose as an inanimate relative possessive adjective has a long, well-established history. It’s been used by the best writers for centuries, so there’s no question that it’s standard. But on the other hand, this ignores the fact that some people think there’s something not quite right about it. After all, we don’t use whose as a possessive form of which or that in their interrogative or demonstrative functions. And although it has a long pedigree, another inanimate possessive with a long pedigree fell out of use and was replaced.

His was originally the possessive form of both he and it, but neuter his started to fall out of use and be replaced by a new form its in the sixteenth century. After English lost grammatical gender, people began to use he and she only for people and other animate things and it only for inanimate things. They started to feel a little uncomfortable using the original possessive form of it, his, with inanimate things, so they fashioned a new possessive, its, to replace it.

In other words, there’s precedence for disfavoring inanimate whose and using another word or construction instead. Unfortunately, now thats or whiches will never get off the ground, because they’ll be so heavily stigmatized as nonstandard forms. There are two different impulses fighting one another here: the impulse to have a full and symmetrical paradigm and the impulse to avoid using animate pronouns for inanimate things. Only time will tell which one wins out. For now, I’d say it’s good to remember that inanimate whose is frequently used by good writers and that there’s nothing wrong with it per se. In your own writing, just trust your ear.

9 Responses to Whose Pronoun Is That?

  1. dw says:

    His was originally the possessive form of both he and it, but it fell out of use and was replaced by a new form its in the sixteenth century.

    “His” was still found in the seventeenth century in some conservative writing, such as the King James Bible — …if the salt haue lost his sauour, wherewith shall it bee salted?

  2. Jonathon says:

    True. My statement was something of an oversimplification. Neuter his lived on for a little while, mostly in more conservative literary use, as you said. The OED says it is recorded as late as 1675, so I guess it would be more accurate to say that neuter his started to fall out of use in the sixteenth century. I’ve now edited the post for clarity and accuracy.

  3. Bob Scopatz says:

    Another great post Jonathon! I hope you’ll keep posting links to G+ as that’s my favorite way to get your update notices.

    I was going to point out that gender assignment determines possessive pronoun usage. If a ship is a “she” then stuff that belongs to that ship is “hers.”

  4. rivka says:

    If a ship is a “she” then stuff that belongs to that ship is “hers.”

    Sure. As in “her crew”, “her captain” — this is common usage, no?

  5. Jonathon says:

    Thanks, Bob. I can certainly keep posting to Google+.

    Bob and Rivka: Right. Sometimes inanimate things use gendered personal pronouns, especially if they’re being personified, but this doesn’t necessarily work with relative pronouns. I don’t think you’d say, “The ship, who had a crew of 1500 . . .” But you might very well say, “The ship, whose crew . . .”

  6. Pingback: Link love: language (36) « Sentence first

  7. The Ridger says:

    I agree – “the ship, who had a crew…” sounds very weird (unless we’re talking about a Leviathan ;-), of course), but “the ship, whose crew…” is perfectly natural for me.

    I use “the crew of which” very rarely, it sounds so stilted and unnatural.

  8. It would be good to have a link to the Wikipedia page.

  9. Good suggestion. I don’t know why I didn’t add the links before.

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