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The Mysterious Word ‘Whose'

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Suppose you are at a birthday party. Everyone has a cell phone. Just as the group begins singing to the birthday girl, someone’s phone rings loudly and won’t stop. You see the noisy phone on the table and ask:

Whose phone is this?

Someone answers:

It’s mine. I’m sorry!

… and turns the sound off. Even though this person and her phone interrupted the party, she did introduce the word for today’s grammar lesson: “whose.”

It may seem short and simple, but how to use and write “whose” confuses even native English speakers. This is partly because they mistake it with another word that sounds the same: “who’s” (spelled w-h-o-apostrophe-s) – a contraction that means “who is” or “who has.”

In contrast, the word “whose” is used to show possession. It is a pronoun that comes from the word “who” but acts as an adjective. It always appears before a noun – for example, in the phrase “whose phone.”

Today, we’ll tell you about the three uses of “whose”: in questions, to introduce relative clauses and to introduce noun clauses.

  1. As a question word

OK, let’s start with “whose” as a question word. The simplest way to ask who something belongs to is this: Whose + noun + the verb “to be” + this/that/these.

Here are three examples:

Whose umbrella is this?

Whose car is that?

Whose books are these?

Ending the sentence with “this,” “that” or “these” is useful when the thing you’re asking about is visible. But, suppose that thing is located elsewhere. You wording would need to be more exact. Listen to these questions:

Whose umbrella can we take to the game?

Whose car is parked down the road?

Whose books were left in the kitchen?

How detailed you are will depend on what you’re asking. But notice that “whose” always goes before the nouns you’re asking about.

  1. In relative clauses

OK, let’s move to relative clauses. We use “whose” to introduce relative clauses that show possession by people, animals or things. As you may recall from earlier Everyday Grammar programs, relative clauses act as adjectives in a sentence. For example:

She taught a student whose parents are from Brazil.

The word “whose” shows possession with “parents.” And the relative clause “whose parents are from Brazil” describes the noun “student.” Notice that it appears after the word “student.” Usually, relative clauses appear directly after the nouns they describe.

Now, let’s try something different. I’ll give you two sentences. You think about how they might be joined using “whose.” Ready? Listen:

I know a man. His daughter works for Voice of America.

The word “his” is a possessive adjective that describes the noun “daughter.” So, did you discover how to combine the sentences? Listen:

I know a man whose daughter works for Voice of America.

We replaced “his” with “whose' and joined the sentences. The relative clause is “whose daughter works for Voice of America.” This clause acts like an adjective describing the man.

  1. In noun clauses

Another type of clause that uses “whose” is a noun clause. You’ll recall that noun clauses behave like nouns in a sentence.

In noun clauses, “whose” often appears in sentences with a main verb of either “know” or “wonder.” Again, the meaning is one of possession. Here’s an example with “know.”

He knows whose song was chosen for the competition.

The word “whose” introduces the noun clause “whose song was chosen for the competition.”

Now suppose you were the one seeking information. You could ask a direct question:

Whose song was chosen for the competition?

… or an indirect question:

Do you know whose song was chosen for the competition?

The words “whose song was chosen for the competition” are still the noun clause.

Let’s stick with this example but use the verb “wonder.” Suppose you want to know whose song was chosen but, rather than ask, you simply think aloud. You might say:

I wonder whose song was chosen for the competition.

Again, the noun clause is the same.

To ‘whose’ or not…

For a long time, “whose” was used to show possession only by people or animals. Grammar tyrants balked at its use for non-living things. For example, they would not like this sentence: “This is the book whose author won the award.” The relative clause “whose author won the award” describes a non-living thing: a book.

But, that rule is now considered dated, including by Merriam-Webster dictionary. And, the truth is that English doesn’t have an equivalent possessive pronoun for non-living things, so even the New York Times uses “whose” for them. Times reporters are not the only ones. Writers dating back centuries, such as Shakespeare, did the same.

Well, that’s our time for today. You can use the Comments section to practice using “whose” in questions, relative clauses and noun clauses. You can also check each other’s work. Or, to say it another way, use the Comments section to see who’s using “whose” correctly.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Words in This Story

cell phonen. the American name for mobile phone

apostrophe n. the punctuation mark ‘ used to show that letters or numbers are missing

contraction n. the act or process of making something smaller or of becoming smaller

clause n. a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb

visible adj. able to be seen

park v. to leave a vehicle in a particular place

balk v. to refuse to do what someone else wants you to do

practice v. to do something again and again in order to become better at it

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