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.

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Rules, Regularity, and Relative Pronouns

The other day I was thinking about relative pronouns and how they get so much attention from usage commentators, and I decided I should write a post about them. I was beaten to the punch by Stan Carey, but that’s okay, because I think I’m going to take it in a somewhat different direction. (And anyway, great minds think alike, right? But maybe you should read his post first, along with my previous post on who and that, if you haven’t already.)

I’m not just talking about that and which but also who, whom, and whose, which is technically a relative possessive adjective. Judging by how often relative pronouns are talked about, you’d assume that most English speakers can’t get them right, even though they’re among the most common words in the language. In fact, in my own research for my thesis, I’ve found that they’re among the most frequent corrections made by copy editors.

So what gives? Why are they so hard for English speakers to get right? The distinctions are pretty clear-cut and can be found in a great many usage and writing handbooks. Some commentators even judgementally declare, “There’s a useful distinction here, and it’s lazy or perverse to pretend otherwise.” But is it really useful, and is it really lazy and perverse to disagree? Or is it perverse to try to inflict a bunch of arbitrary distinctions on speakers and writers?

And arbitrary they are. Many commentators act as if the proposed distinctions between all these words would make things tidier and more regular, but in fact it makes the whole system much more complicated. On the one hand, we have the restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction between that and which. On the other hand, we have the animate/inanimate (or human/nonhuman, if you want to be really strict) distinction between who and that/which. And on the other other hand, there’s the subject/object distinction between who and whom. But there’s no subject/object distinction with that or which, except when it’s the object of a preposition—then you have to use which, unless the preposition is stranded, in which case you can use that. And on the final hand, some people have proscribed whose as an inanimate or nonhuman relative possessive adjective, recommending constructions with of which instead, though this rule isn’t as popular, or at least not as frequently talked about, as the others. (How many hands is that? I’ve lost count.)

Simple, right? To make it all a little clear, I’ve even put it into a nice little table.

The proposed relative pronoun system

This is, in a nutshell, a very lopsided and unusual system. In a comment on my who/that post, Elaine Chaika says, “No natural grammar rule would work that way. Ever.” I’m not entirely convinced of that, because languages can be surprising in the unusual distinctions they make, but I agree that it is at the least typologically unusual.

“But we have to have rules!” you say. “If we don’t, we’ll have confusion!” But we do have rules—just not the ones that are proposed and promoted. The system we really have, in absence of the prescriptions, is basically a distinction between animate who and inanimate which with that overlaying the two. Which doesn’t make distinctions by case, but who(m) does, though this distinction is moribund and has probably only been kept alive by the efforts of schoolteachers and editors.

Whom is still pretty much required when it immediately follows a preposition, but not when the preposition is stranded. Since preposition stranding is extremely common in speech and increasingly common in writing, we’re seeing less and less of whom in this position. Whose is still a little iffy with inanimate referents, as in The house whose roof blew off, but many people say this is alright. Others prefer of which, though this can be awkward: The house the roof of which blew off.

That is either animate or inanimate—only who/which make that distinction—and can be either subject or object but cannot follow a preposition or function as a possessive adjective or nonrestrictively. If the preposition is stranded, as in The man that I gave the apple to, then it’s still allowed. But there’s no possessive thats, so you have to use whose of of which. Again, it’s clearer in table form:

The natural system of relative pronouns

The linguist Jonathan Hope wrote that several distinguishing features of Standard English give it “a typologically unusual structure, while non-standard English dialects follow the path of linguistic naturalness.” He then muses on the reason for this:

One explanation for this might be that as speakers make the choices that will result in standardisation, they unconsciously tend towards more complex structures, because of their sense of the prestige and difference of formal written language. Standard English would then become a ‘deliberately’ difficult language, constructed, albeit unconsciously, from elements that go against linguistic naturalness, and which would not survive in a ‘natural’ linguistic environment.[1]

It’s always tricky territory when you speculate on people’s unconscious motivations, but I think he’s on to something. Note that while the prescriptions make for a very asymmetrical system, the system that people naturally use is moving towards a very tidy and symmetrical distribution, though there are still a couple of wrinkles that are being worked out.

But the important point is that people already follow rules—just not the ones that some prescriptivists think they should.

  1. [1] “Rats, Bats, Sparrows and Dogs: Biology, Linguistics and the Nature of Standard English,” in The Development of Standard English, 1300–1800, ed. Laura Wright (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2000), 53.