Who’s Misusing Whose?

By Maeve Maddox

People have a lot of trouble with the word whose.

A short web cruise will turn up numerous examples of the error of writing who’s when the context calls for whose. For example:

Do any of you have favorite authors who’s books have become hard to find?

People who’s lives are manipulated by others…

What to do with a step daughter who’s behavior is out of control

When Driving A Borrowed Car: Who’s Policy Covers What?

Like it’s, who’s is a contraction. And like it’s, the misuse of who’s screams ignorance or extremely slipshod writing.

Who’s is a contraction for the words who is.

Whose is a word of many uses. Here are some examples of ways in which it may be used to stand for nouns, describe nouns, ask a question, or introduce a clause:

Whose are these keys?

Whose dog is this?

Don’t forget whose son you are.

He found a laptop and wondered whose it was.

That’s the race horse whose winnings made Jones a millionaire.
Don’t delay the passengers whose passports have already been stamped.

NOTE: When the antecedent is inanimate, whose may be replaced by of which:
The new car, the luxury of which impressed everyone, is a domestic make.

However, since the by which construction often produces what the OED calls “an intolerably clumsy form,” whose is often used for inanimate antecedents as well: This is the cottage whose shutters and thatched roof so delight me.

Because I don’t like to leave egregious errors floating in people’s minds, here are the corrected sentences:

Do any of you have favorite authors whose books have become hard to find?

People whose lives are manipulated by others…

What to do with a step-daughter whose behavior is out of control

When Driving A Borrowed Car: Whose Policy Covers What?

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16 Responses to “Who’s Misusing Whose?”

  • AmaT

    Good to hear from you, Maeve. Helpful post. I have even more trouble with who and whom.

  • Alexandre Piccolo

    Nice post to clarify things, Maeve.

    Just to add some information, whose is a possessive adjective / pronoun, right?! Sometimes relative (when referring to another given word), sometimes interrogative (when asking for the word which was not given). Besides, it may often be replaced by of whom or of which, as stated. But, please, correct me if anything I’ve said is wrong.

    N.B.: For those who learned Latin, it works exactly like “cuius” (singular) “quorum/quarum” (plural).

  • Allure Van Sanz

    Yes, I have trouble with who and whom sometimes, too.

    LOL Am I the only one who feels relief when I get a daily tip I already know and implement?

  • Sharon

    I think some people just like the way an apostrophe looks! Although no examples come to mind right off, I often see apostrophes strewn around on billboards, signs on businesses, and elsewhere–as if there were some extras laying around about to expire which simply had to be used up.

  • Maeve Maddox

    AmaT,
    Nice to be back.

    You’re not alone regarding “who” and “whom.” You may be interested in my recent post at the American English Doctor: “Whom is Not For Everyone”

  • Maeve Maddox

    Alexandre Piccolo,
    “Whose” is the possessive form of “who.” It can be used as a simple relative as well as an interrogative pronoun.

    I would reserve the term “possessive adjective” for my, your, his, her, its, our, your, and their. Some prefer the term “possessive determiners” for these words.

    Allure Van Sanz,
    You are not alone. Many speakers have stopped using “whom” altogether and that is now considered acceptable standard usage. Some speakers, however, seem to think that “whom” is just a more elegant form of “who” and sprinkle it around without regard to its function in a sentence.

    Sharon,
    I like your theory about the popularity of the apostrophe. 🙂

  • Precise Edit

    Thumbs up for the use of “slipshod.” That word sounds better than the ones I normally use: “uneducated” and “amateurish.”

    Perhaps the answer to the question posed by the title is “too many people.”

    @AmaT and Allure Van Sanz: Regarding “who” and “whom”

    Here’s the easy explanation. “Who” is a subject pronoun; “whom” is an object pronoun.

    If the term “object pronoun” is unfamiliar to you, ignore it and follow this advice: When you need a subject for a verb, use “who”–otherwise use “whom.”

    Here’s the longer, more technical explanation from “Which Word Do I Use?”

    Do you remember the OJ Simpson trial (the first one)? Johnnie Cochran, who led OJ Simpson’s defense team, was a great speaker. One of his more powerful statements, actually a rhetorical question to the jury, was, “Who is kidding whom?”

    This is a great quotation because it underscores the correct uses of “who” and “whom.”

    Here’s another one: “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?”

    Many writers are confused about the use of “whom.” However, it is not complicated if you understand how it is used.

    To understand the correct use of “whom,” you need to know a little bit about objects in sentences. An object is 1) the person, place, thing, or idea affected by the action in a sentence, or 2) the reference for a preposition. Let’s look at an example of each.

    1. Object of a verb: “The dog found bones under the rock.” The action here is “found.” We can ask, “Found what?” The answer is “bones.” “Bones” are affected by the action of finding, so “bones” is the object of the action “found.”

    2. “The dog found bones under the rock.” The preposition here is “under.” We can ask, “Under what?” The answer is “rock,” so “rock” is the object of the preposition “under.”

    Although the samples above use nouns as objects, we can also use pronouns. For example, we could write “The dog found them under the rock.” Here, “them” is the object of the action “found.”

    (The object pronouns are “me,” “you,” “him,” “her,” “it,”us,” “them,” and “whom.” If you need an object pronoun, these are your options.)

    If someone came to me and said, “Hey, my dog found bones under some people,” I could respond, “Oh, yeah? Under whom?” Here, “whom” is the object of the preposition “under.” I have to use “whom” because I need an object for the preposition “under.”

    If someone else came to and said, “Hey, the cops found the person who robbed the bank,” I can ask, “Whom did they catch?” Here, “whom” is the object of the verb “catch.” The action of catching was done to “whom.”

    On the other hand, the pronoun “who” is used as a subject. That is it’s only purpose. “Who” is always and only the subject of an action. “Who” does something. For example, you can write “Who put the bones under the rock?” Here, “who” is the subject of the action “put.”

    (The subject pronouns are “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “it,” “we,” “they,” and “who.”)

    Choosing Who or Whom:
    “Who”—When you need the subject of a verb, use “who.”
    “Whom”—When you need an object, use “whom.”

    If you are still not sure which one you need, try this common trick. Replace the “who/whom” pronoun with the subject pronoun “he.” How does that sentence sound to you? Then replace it with the object pronoun “him” or “them.” How does it sound now?

    If “he” (a subject pronoun) sounds correct, you need the subject pronoun “who.”

    If “him” or “them” (object pronouns) sounds more correct, you need the object pronoun “whom.”

  • Precise Edit

    its (!) /sigh

  • Maeve Maddox

    Precise Edit,
    Thanks for your thoughtful and thorough explanation.

    I sometimes feel that in trying to explain the difference between “who” and “whom” (“lay” and “lie,” “passed” and “past”) we’re beating a dead horse.

    The fact that so many high school graduates seem to have failed to grasp the concepts of subject and object lead me to believe that these concepts aren’t being taught in the lower grades. I have encountered graduate students majoring in English who have been assigned to teach freshman composition, but who do not themselves understand the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, or when to use “whom.”

    Keep up the good fight!

  • Precise Edit

    This is getting a bit off topic, but I’ll pull out my soapbox for just a moment. And then I’ll shut up.

    In spite of the fact that many English teachers are excellent…most teachers, in any subject, base their instruction on what they know and are comfortable teaching, not on what students need to learn. Education organizations and systems are designed for the convenience and comfort of the educators, not for the edification of the students.

    The best teachers are exceptional not because of the education system and teacher training programs, but in spite of them.

    Example 1: I was presenting a workshop on strategies to teach math, demonstrating how to incorporate algebraic skills in lower grades. I asked the teachers for the formula for the area of a rectangle (L x H). A 5th grade teacher responded, “Isn’t that like the circumference?” (The circumference is a measure of the perimeter, not the area, of a circle, not a rectangle.)

    Example 2: I was conducting classroom observations while evaluating a federally funded program to improve reading skills. I heard one teacher say, “It doesn’t matter who’s doing it [i.e., the subject of the sentence]. How does it make you feel?” (I finally got to use “who’s”!)

    Example 3: When I was a H.S. English / Communications teacher 800 years ago, a colleague told me, in paraphrase, “There’s only 15 minutes till the bell. I don’t feel like starting something new, so the kids can just relax.”

    And why should a Science teacher (or any non-English subject teacher) be allowed to say, “I don’t worry about the way students write. That’s not what I teach”?

    Unfortunately, these examples are representative of many experiences with K-12 teachers. But do I blame them? Other than the poor attitude displayed by the teacher in example 3, not really. These are symptoms of systemic, not individual, problems. They require systemic solutions.

    My 3 cents on improving the K-12 education system:
    1) Strengthen and expand general knowledge requirements for a teaching certificate, which will have a spill-over effect on training programs and hiring,
    2) Tie teaching tenure to student achievement as measured by criterion-referenced tests, and
    3) Provide existing teachers with substantial professional development on basic math, science, and communication (e.g., grammar) skills, with accountability for implementation in classrooms.

    I was going to include requiring teachers to have advanced degrees in the subjects they teach, but I didn’t have one and the graduate students you described do or will. Besides, strategy #2 makes the advanced degree unnecessary, placing emphasis, instead, on student performance that results from teacher knowledge and ability.

  • Maeve

    Precise Edit,
    Some of your case histories give me the chills. I could probably match them from my own experience.

    “And why should a Science teacher (or any non-English subject teacher) be allowed to say, “I don’t worry about the way students write. That’s not what I teach”?”

    This is the sort of thing that really rattles my chain. In my view, All Teachers are English Teachers.

  • Allure Van Sanz

    I can honestly say, explaining grammatical rules (or anything really) is never a waste of time if one person might be listening and truly eager to learn.

    The problem is, some people learn differently, like myself. I read and read. I have many different text books and examples, but not the ability to retain the information–until it is explained in a way that just clicks with me.

    My favorite quote is from Cicero. “I am not ashamed to admit that I am ignorant of what I do not know.”

    I think pride and the fear of being ridiculed for making a mistake or not knowing something others seem to easily understand, keeps many people suffering silently, guessing, and hoping they get things right.

    The only dead horse is the person who doesn’t care to improve. The rest of us just stumble through, trying to find the teacher capable of hitting our learning g-spot.

    In my search, I keep reading until something clicks, which, in this case, it has. This bit just made perfect sense to me, and it is something I will apply with confidence:

    “If you are still not sure which one you need, try this common trick. Replace the “who/whom” pronoun with the subject pronoun “he.” How does that sentence sound to you? Then replace it with the object pronoun “him” or “them.” How does it sound now?

    If “he” (a subject pronoun) sounds correct, you need the subject pronoun “who.”

    If “him” or “them” (object pronouns) sounds more correct, you need the object pronoun “whom.” ”

    Now, there are other grammatical rules I’ve yet to learn, which is why I sign up for daily writing tips and other courses and classes. Will I always understand and get it right all the time? Newp. But I won’t stop trying until I learn a quick tip, or trick, that clicks on the lightbulb. Then it will be my turn to tell others.

    Thanks again!
    Allure

  • BlinKinGhost

    Well explained post. But honestly, I find it fairly easy to know when to use who’s or whose. I don’t know how people can have so much trouble with these two words. And my first language is german.

  • Peter

    BlinKinGhost: That’s probably why — it’s easier if you know another language. It’s been said that if you want to speak English, learn a little Latin.

  • Jean

    What about the other way around?
    Example:
    “Audrey is the person whose going to be taking care of all catering arrangements.”
    vs.
    “Audrey is the person who is/who’s going to…”

    ???

  • Sanja

    You forgot to mention that “who’s” can also stand for “who has”, not only “who is”. “Whose” is always a possessive form of “who”.

    I’m also a non-native English speaker and I never have problems with this kind of things, unlike many native speakers I encounter. Sometimes it’s hard for me to understand how they can have such poor grasp of their own language.

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