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Q From John Dear, Scotland: A magazine photograph was captioned ‘The car whose interior was destroyed by fire’. Is there a good alternative to humanising the car? ‘The car, the interior of which was destroyed by fire’ is a little long-winded.

A Yours is an interesting question, with its underlying belief that whose can only properly be applied to people, not to things. This has in the past been the firm rule of grammarians and generations of children have been taught it.

Modern authorities deny that any such rule exists. For example, in the first edition of Modern English Usage back in 1926, H W Fowler argued that the rule was no more than a folk belief and he was vehement about the rigidity it imposed. He ended his article “Let us, in the name of common sense, prohibit the prohibition of whose inanimate; good writing is surely difficult enough without the forbidding of things that have historical grammar, and present intelligibility, and obvious convenience, on their side”. All the other writers on usage that I have consulted say the same thing, with roughly equivalent degrees of exasperation. They all point to authors of impeccable credentials over the past 400 years who have used whose to refer to inanimate objects, including Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Addison, Pope, and Wordsworth. Even the (rather conservative) usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary has no problem with it.

The basis for the rule is that whose is the possessive form of who, so strictly ought only to be used when persons are referred to. The problem is that English doesn’t have an equivalent possessive form for which or that, so we must either not use one at all, or borrow whose. Writers from medieval times onwards have taken the second course, mainly because it leads to smoother prose than the inverted clauses that are required by of which, as you have illustrated. As the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage remarks, the result is that this is one disputed usage which is more common in the works of good writers than bad ones.

The belief is in the same category as not splitting an infinitive, or not ending a sentence with a preposition, other invented rules of eighteenth and nineteenth century grammarians that have been ignored by a large proportion of writers of good English. These rules all grew out of formal arguments about what ought to be right; they didn’t take into account the way the language actually works, nor how people actually use it.

In the sentence you quote, whose is acceptable.

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Page created 04 Nov 2000