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The Word Guy: Here’s a usage ‘whose’ time finally has come

Question: In the sentence, “None of that revenue is going to the city, whose main source of income is taxes,” is it correct to use “whose” to refer to a city, an inanimate object?

— Mary Kaskan, Watertown, N.Y.

Answer: Yes!

As the English language evolved early in the second millennium, it somehow never developed a possessive form of the pronouns “which” and “that.” (And when you consider how ugly these pronouns might have been — “which’s,” “thatof” — maybe that’s a good thing.)

Unfazed by the absence of such a pronoun, people blithely grabbed the first possessive form that was handy (“whose”) and used it with objects. And some of these folks were pretty respected writers, e.g., William Shakespeare (“I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul” (“Hamlet”), and John Milton (“the fruit/Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste/Brought death into the World. …” (“Paradise Lost”).

But during the 1700s, a group of British grammarians, apparently concerned that a “human” pronoun was being used to describe a nonhuman object — Oh, my! — launched a whispering campaign against this practice. Instead of condemning it outright (“A blight on our tongue, sir!”), they penned namby-pamby aspersions, such as this comment on the usage by Lindley Murray in 1795: “I do not think that the construction is generally pleasing.” Take that!

Such slurs and insinuations, however mild, imparted a whiff of impropriety to the nonhuman “whose,” tainting its reputation well into the 1800s.

But the air cleared during the 20th century, when modern writers started deploying “whose” for everything from a house “in one of whose rooms” (Sinclair Lewis) to a book “whose author is the German poet Rainier Maria Rilke” (e e cummings) to a lamp “whose shade was orange” (John Updike).

These authors embraced the inanimate “whose” for the same reason Shakespeare and Milton did: The verbal contortions needed to avoid “whose” — “of which,” “of that” — are clumsy and awkward, e.g., “a house in one of the rooms of which” or “a lamp the shade of which was orange”? “None of that revenue is going to the city, for which the main source of income is taxes”? Ugh!

So we can all breathe a sigh of relief and safely put aside any qualms about using “whose” to describe an apple, an app or an apparatus. Common sense, whose virtues are not always recognized by grammarians, does, occasionally, triumph.

Rob Kyff is a teacher in West Hartford, Conn. Send reports of misuse and abuse to [email protected] or to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.


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