Yet Another Post about English Usage (Cry for Help Edition)

Terribly sorry for my monomania, but these things stick in my head.

This time, I’m not telling you what I know, really. I’m admitting to a problem. I don’t know how to show possession in certain circumstances.

But first, let’s talk about the word “who.” Come on, you know you want to.

“Who” implies a person

“The person who ate my chocolate chip cookies will suffer in the ninth circle of hell.”

[Ok, it’s true that lots of people use “that” instead of “who” when writing about a person. This post isn’t about those people.]

Now, when I want to talk about a nonperson, I use “that”:

“The machine that destroyed my cookies will be disassembled and sent to Tatooine.”

With me so far? “Who” = Person. “That” = Not a person. Onward…

Possession!

We have to use “whose” sometimes.

“Paul, whose car is blue, dislikes yellow cars.”

That sounds about right. Paul is still a person, despite his unyielding opposition to canary-colored cars.

But what do I say about a nonperson here:

“The building, whose windows are mirrored, stays cool in the summer.”

Whose? Really? That just doesn’t sound right for an inanimate object. (I’ve even seen “which’s” before, but not from a native English speaker.)

As far as I can tell, “whose” is our only option other than rewriting it.

Am I wrong?

5 Responses to Yet Another Post about English Usage (Cry for Help Edition)

  1. Steve Voorhees May 17, 2010 at 1:47 pm #

    My Scrabble trophy, whose nameplate indicates a 4th Place finish, has no comment.

  2. Hélène May 18, 2010 at 8:11 am #

    As a non native English speaker, I learnt English at school and was taught the following structure: “of which”.
    In your sentence, we would get:
    “The building, the windows of which are mirrored, stays cool in the summer.”

    Still sounds complicated though. And maybe outdated?
    In French we have this wonderful word “dont” for both persons and nonpersons. Much simpler! (for once)

  3. weeklyrob May 18, 2010 at 8:39 am #

    Hélène: “of which” does work, and isn’t outdated, but sometimes feels a little too formal, or constrictive.

    Another place where French is simpler is with “si” for yes to a negative question.

    “You’re not 41 years old?”

    In English (as you know), we have to judge by context and tone whether yes means I’m not 41, or that I am.

    Usually it’s easy, but there are the occasional misunderstandings.

  4. Jeffrey May 26, 2010 at 1:10 am #

    My problem with possessives is for plural subjects.

    Is it:
    “Helen’s and John’s house …”

    or
    “Helen and John’s house …”

    I’d swear I’ve seen guides going each direction.

  5. weeklyrob May 26, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    Jeffrey, the possessive thing follows a rule:

    If they share the house, then you only need one apostrophe:

    Helen and John’s house. The house of the unit of Helen and John.

    If there are two houses, one owned by John and one by Helen:

    Helen’s and John’s houses.

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