Using "Whose" with Inanimate Objects

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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 with inanimate objects

"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." This means it can be used with animate and inanimate objects.

Examples of Using "Whose" with Inanimate Objects

In these examples, the inanimate object used with "whose" is in bold.
  • Love is like a beautiful flower that I may not touch, but whose fragrance makes the garden a place of delight just the same. (Author Helen Keller)
  • There is no force so powerful as an idea whose time has come. (Politician Everett Dirksen)
  • What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered. (Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson)
  • I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering. (Poet Robert Frost)

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 form of only "who" and not "which."

More about the Difference between "Who" and "Which"

The relative 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.")
  • My brother 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."

The way we differentiate between "who" and "which" is why writers are reluctant to use an inanimate antecedent with "whose." However, if we think of "whose" as being the possessive form of both "who" and "which" (not just "who"), then this reluctance disappears.

A Workaround for "Whose" with an Inanimate Antecedent

If you still can't bear to use "whose" with an inanimate object, then it might be possible to use the following structure as a workaround.
[noun]
+
[preposition, usually "of"]
+
"which"


Here are some re-worked sentences from the examples above:
  • Love is like a beautiful flower that I may not touch, but the fragrance of which makes the garden a place of delight just the same.
  • There is no force so powerful as an idea the time of which has come.
  • What is a weed? A plant the virtues of which have never been discovered.
  • I have never started a poem yet the end of which I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.
This isn't an elegant workaround, but it's an option. The best bet? Go with "whose."
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

"Who's" or "whose"? "Which," "that," or "who"? Using a comma before "which" and "who" "Who" or "whom"? Possessive adjectives Possessive pronouns