Grammar Monster
Grammar Monster

Using Whose with Inanimate Objects

The Quick Answer
Can whose be used with inanimate objects?

The word whose can be used with inanimate as well as animate objects. For example:
  • A woman whose expression is glad has an innate beauty.
  • A flower whose petals have withered still reeks of potential.
  • (NB: Plants are not considered animate.)

Whose Can Be Used with Animate and Inanimate Objects

Whose is the possessive form of who and which. It is not just the possessive form of who.

Why Do People Dislike Using Whose with Inanimate Objects?

Even though whose can be used for inanimate objects, it feels awkward because we tend to think of whose as being the possessive of only who and not which.

The pronoun who refers to a person (and occasionally an animal). The person (or animal) that who refers to is called its antecedent. In each example below, the antecedent of who is shown in bold:
  • I know the boy who stole the pie.
  • (Here, boy is the antecedent of who.)
  • The target is the man with the white stick who is bending now.
  • (Here, man is the antecedent of who.)
In the second example above, we know who is bending now refers to man because who can only refer to animate things. Compare that example with this one: In the example above, we know which is bending now refers to stick because if it referred to man, we would have used who and not which.

Note

Do Not Treat Whose Like Who

As we are programmed to identify animate antecedents when we encounter who, many people believe the relative pronoun whose must also refer to an animate antecedent. However, this is not the case.

Whose can also be used for inanimate antecedents. (After all, the word which's does not exist.) For example:
  • Please show me the car whose engine caught on fire.
  • (Here, car is the antecedent of the relative pronoun whose.)
  • Love is like a beautiful flower which I may not touch but whose fragrance makes the garden a place of delight just the same. (Helen Keller)
  • (Here, flower is the antecedent of the relative pronoun whose.)
    (Note: Plants are not considered animate in the grammar world.)