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From Breffni O'Rourke — David Alexander and Phil Stewart, "Nine officers removed, one resigns in Air Force cheating probe", Reuters 3/27/2014:

Nuclear critics say the problem is deeply rooted and has been going on for years, becoming increasingly acute since the end of the Cold War as the nuclear mission has increasingly come to be seen as a dead-end career that's relevance is in decline.

Breffni comments "I don't think I've come across that before. Maybe the writer was trying to avoid 'whose' with a non-human head?"

The possessive form of that-the-complementizer seems wrong to me, presumably for the same reason that "that" doesn't work in e.g. "a career the relevance of which/*that is in decline", or "… the prison from which/*that they escaped".

But this is certainly not the first time someone has been inspired to take possessive-complementizer that out for a spin, on the theory that it's really a kind of pronoun. For instance, there's an exchange on Yahoo! Answers starting with this question:

Hi! So I'm writing a paper and I'm saying, "Darfur is a region of western Sudan thats government is…" My question is about the "that"– should it be "that's" (even though that means "that is") or "thats" (with no apostrophe)? My computer says it should be "that's", but I need a serious, concrete answer for the correct grammar. Thank you!

It's not easy to find other examples, since the -'s in that's is usually a contracted form of is rather than the possessive. But maybe there are English varieties where things work differently?

Update — I spent the afternoon in an interesting panel discussion at PLC 38, and it's a real pleasure to come back and read such a marvelous collection of thoughtful and informative comments.


  1. jfruh said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 11:58 am

    Another linguistic aspect of this news story is that NBC News tweeted about it with a sentence with a hilariously misleading beginning: "Just In: Air Force fires nine nuclear missile commanders over two-year cheating scandal".

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

    MYL said: But maybe there are English varieties where things work differently?

    There are according to CGEL (p1057n), in its argument for that in relative clauses to be analysed as a subordinator rather than a pronoun.

    "There are non-standard dialects of English in which that's does occur, as in the man that's leg was broken. We do not believe that such examples necessitate a pronoun analysis for the dialects concerned, and certainly they do not establish this analysis as valid for all dialects."

    Of CGEL's other examples, *the woman that's turn it was sounds somewhat odd to me, but not nearly as clearly ungrammatical as *the knife with that he cut it. More like the kind of thing a child of twelve could say, as opposed to a non-native speaker.

  3. hester said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

    Wiktionary has entries for possessive that's and which's. Both are marked nonstandard, but which's has more citations.

    [(myl) In fact, the only citation given for possessive complementizer that is to Neal Whitman, "We don't speak the same language", 3/23/2011, commenting on this difference in the version of English that his son has learned:

    I made note of Doug’s use of that’s at the time, and noticed it again a couple more times recently. And when I mentioned it to him in our conversation, did he suddenly see why that’s was so unusual? No way! He was a little surprised to learn that that’s as a possessive relative hadn’t been around for very long, but it didn’t bother him at all. He even said he’d most likely use it instead of whose in the examples I was talking about.


  4. Craig said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

    This just seems like clumsy writing to me. It would have been easy enough to say "a dead-end career that is no longer relevant" or "a dead-end career of diminishing relevance" or even (for a slightly more formal feel) "a dead-end career, the relevance of which is in decline." Better still, one might have directly established the cause-and-effect relationship between these elements by instead writing something like, "a career that is increasingly seen as a dead end because of the diminishing relevance of the nuclear mission in the post-Cold War era." But apparently it's too much these days to expect journalists to be able to write.

  5. Ben Zimmer said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

    Neal Whitman also talked about this usage of that's in a 2011 Visual Thesaurus column (with links to further discussion on ADS-L).

    However, that looks so darn much like a relative pronoun used as a subject in phrases like the house that got sold, or an object in phrases like the house that Jack built, that here and there, speakers have begun to give it a possessive form, too: that's. I've heard my 12-year-old son say it, and he was rather surprised to find out that there was anything unusual about it. Larry Horn, again from the ADS thread, Googled "the guy that's" and found examples such as the guy that's mother was looking for him, the guy that's mother died, and the guy that's wife just had a baby. He also found a pathetic kid that's mother hates him. You can also find that's referring to inanimate things, as in this example I found: the company that's CEO confessed to the company being a"series of misses". I see that this word has also appeared in one of the comments on Brenner's article. There was even one contributor to the ADS thread for whom possessive relative that's was so normal, and who had so thoroughly absorbed the restriction of whose to animates, that he considered that's to be better English than whose with an inanimate object! If you don't like whose with inanimate objects, you might want to learn to like these new alternatives. Unlike who, the words which and that were never restricted to animate things, so the forms which's and that's can't be disparaged on those grounds.

  6. Warren Maguire said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

    that's is perfectly possible in my Northern Irish English dialect, e.g. "The cow that's calf was lost" is fine; "The cow whose calf was lost" is not so good as my dialect seems to require human reference for who, "The cow which's calf was lost" is something I've never heard before, and "The cow the calf of which was lost" is impossible in my dialect (no matter how standard or non-standard I'm being).

  7. Victoria Simmons said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

    My college students use 'that' in place of 'who' all the time: "The woman that loves Gilgamesh turns out to be a goddess." They may use it more. It's as though they are losing 'who.'

  8. Matt_M said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

    Googling for phrases like "that's mother is" and "that's father is" turns up plenty of examples of "that's" as a possessive pronoun. I don't think I've ever used it myself, but it doesn't sound strange to me — just non-standard. I guess it fills a gap in the English language for those (like me) who do not use "whose" as a relative pronoun for inanimate antecedents.

  9. David Denison said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

    A couple more references:
    Seppänen, Aimo. 1997. The genitives of the relative pronouns in Present-day English. In Jenny Cheshire & Dieter Stein (eds.), Taming the vernacular: From dialect to written standard language, 152-69. London and New York: Longman.

    Seppänen, Aimo & Göran Kjellmer. 1995. The dog that's leg was run over: On the genitive of the relative pronoun. English Studies 76, 389-400.

  10. Matt_M said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

    @Victoria Simmons: what's strange about using "that" in relative clauses modifying an animate head noun? It's perfectly correct standard English, and has been so for centuries.

    The issue in this blog post is about possessive "that's" as a relative pronoun, which is a different kettle of fish.

  11. michael farris said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

    That's instead of whose doesn't sound very weird to me as everyday informal speech and I might even (have) use(d) it. It does seem weird as usage by professional journalists.

  12. michael farris said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

    Craig: "But apparently it's too much these days to expect journalists to be able to write"

    You do realize that outsourcing journalistic writing is a real thing.


    I like to congratulate myself that I'd figured out something like that was going on before actually getting confirmation.

    The question is what does that do to corpuses of online material. How much can journalistic writing produced in this way be regarded as legitimate native speaker usage….

  13. Tisha said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

    It's so hard for me to understand. I study english myself and i know to write several simple sentences. It's not complicated as you wrote here.

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

    The animacy point seems very relevant, now I think about it.

    *The car that's wheel is missing is surely better than CGEL's *the woman that's turn it was, no?

  15. Mark Mandel said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

    I've been noticing a few such "that's"es in informal writing, on blogs and such. But it's not isolated: I've seen quite a few possessive "who's"es as well. I was taking them as merely analytical misspellings of "whose", but together with possessive "that's" they constitute a pattern, and patterns are what we conscious animals notice and build our grammars on.

    Of course, possessive "who's" is as hard to count with a search engine as possessive "that's", and for the same reason, homography with "+is" contraction.

    Two comment-replies on animacy, one on each part of the ± sign:

    @MattM: seconded on ±animate non-possessive "that".

    @Craig, when I saw the "that's" clause in the quote, I thought it should've been "a dead-end career whose relevance is in decline". I've been using "whose" as ±animate possessive relative all my life.

  16. Levantine said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

    Matt_M, why wouldn't you use "whose" with inanimate antecedents? I thought it was perfectly standard to do so.

  17. mollymooly said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

    Quite a few relevant ghits for "that's time has come".

  18. Rubrick said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

    @BenZimmer@NealWhitman: "you might want to learn to like these new alternatives"

    "That's" amore?

  19. Stan Carey said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

    The usage makes anachronistic sense in a way: when that was þæt its genitive was þæs. I saw an apostrophe-less version in a film review ("a spoofy fantasy adventure thats focus would be…") and wrote about it at Sentence first. There are more examples in the comments.

  20. Lachlan Mackenzie said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 2:42 pm

    In my speech as a Scot, that's is perfectly normal. It is the only option in Scots: the wumman that's dug deed, 'the woman whose dog died'.

  21. rootlesscosmo said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 3:05 pm

    I often see "who's" where I would expect "whose," as in the quoted sentence. Might the writer have been trying to avoid a usage about which he felt uncertain?

  22. GeorgeW said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: My first reaction to "The car that's wheel is missing" is the issue of an inanimate possessor. I would prefer "The car with a wheel missing." But, on further review, I don't have a problem with "The car's missing wheel . . ."

  23. Ellen K. said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 3:06 pm


    Though I can't say for certain I wouldn't ever use " whose" with inanimate objects, I can say that doing so feels wrong enough that I wouldn't correct "a dead-end career that's relevance is in decline" to "a dead-end career whose relevance is in decline" because doing so feels wrong. Why? Simple because that's English as I learned it.

    I do think "that's" in this usage sounds natural to me but looks odd on the page, thus perhaps more a spoken language thing than a written language thing.

  24. Matt_M said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

    @Levantine: I agree that it's perfectly standard to use "whose" with inanimate antecedents; the fact that I don't is an idiosyncrasy of mine. It just feels wrong to me (or perhaps it's an Australian dialect thing — any other Australians out there willing to weigh in on this issue?). I've got no beef with other people using it, though.

  25. dazeystarr said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

    Interesting, as I just came across a journalistic example of this this morning on The AV Club. In her review of the latest episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Molly Eichel begins, "For a show that’s strength was its ensemble from the very beginning, Brooklyn Nine-Nine ended its first season near-perfectly." It immediately struck me as weird and clunky.

    I also would have gone with "nearly perfectly" rather than "near-perfectly", but…eh, I generally don't expect stellar writing from pop-culture web sites. Sadly.

  26. David Pesetsky said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 3:46 pm

    There was actually an extended discussion of this back at the dawn of the Linguist List (I was a participant):


    There might have been even more postings. These are the ones that were easy to track down.

  27. Brett said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 3:46 pm

    I also would find this unremarkable in speech, but in written form it's a bit odd. However, "whose" with an inanimate referent can also sound odd, and one has to consider which one sounds better. (I agree with the assertion that "that's" sounds quite a bit worse with an animate referent, especially a human one.) Ultimately, as I was thinking about the original sentence with "that's," I found myself comparing it with an equivalent sentence using "whose," and it was very clear that I was analyzing them as the same part of speech. The CGEL quote given by Pflaumbaum seems to suggest that such an analysis is only a feature of non-standard dialects, but I am a native speaker of prestige standard American English. There does not seem to be anything blocking some speakers from adopting "that's," and I suspect that there are quite a few standard speakers like myself (and seemingly several other commenters here) for whom this usage would be unremarkable in spoken discourse.

  28. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 5:15 pm

    I'm another who finds possessive "that's" perfectly acceptable in informal style; I too find "whose" with a non-human reference peculiar, which may be relevant.

    Scots influence may be significant in my case too. I went to school in Glasgow, though only those with Henry-Higgins-like dialect-fu pick up anything un-RP about my idiolect.

  29. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

    @ Levantine-

    I think whose referring to inanimates is certainly Standard English, but I also thnk it's quite high style. Saying 'the car whose wheel is missing' down our way would sound pretty pompous, no? I think I'd be much more likely to use that's if I didn't recast it with a prepositional phrase.

  30. Bobbie said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 5:30 pm

    In today's local paper, there was reference to a special drink at a Margaritaville Restaurant, incorrectly written as the "Whose to Blame" , rather than the correctly named, "Who's to blame." [based on the lyrics of Jimmy Buffett's song, "Margaritaville"]
    The recipe is at http://www.margaritaville.com/parrotheads_recipes_drink.html

  31. Brett said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 5:53 pm


    Some people will claim that it's spelled "Whose to Blame,"
    But I know…

  32. Dick Margulis said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 6:22 pm

    Seems to me that the spelling ought to be standardized to thats rather than that's, if people are going to start writing everything they say. For one thing, it disambiguates it from that is. For another, it's more consistent with the genitives its, whose, yours, his, hers, and theirs.

    I maintain that the apostrophe for genitives is a passing fad in English anyway and will probably be gone in another couple hundred years.

  33. Levantine said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

    I'm actually very surprised to learn how unidiomatic some people consider "whose" when used of inanimate antecedents and how readily the same people accept (or use) "that's". Before today, I'd never encountered this use of "that's" either in speech or writing, and it sounds very odd to me. I'm a reasonably well-spoken (though not posh) Londoner, and I've always considered "whose" to be the usual word at all registers (Pflaumbaum, the example you give doesn't sound at all pompous to me). It's fascinating to learn that others feel so differently.

    I was aware of an old-fashioned rule against inanimate "whose" that demanded the use of "of which" instead, but that's clearly a different matter from what's under discussion here. Still, it's interesting in light of this thread that Fowler's argument against the rule suggests that many who upheld it did so because they considered inanimate "whose" not formal enough (the following is all quoted from Fowler; I wasn't sure how to format it as a quotation):

    [W]ould not "Courts whose jurisdiction", & "a game of whose rules it is ignorant" be clear improvements in the following?—"The civilians managed to retain their practice in Courts the jurisdiction of which was not based on the Common Law."/"In Whistler v. Ruskin—the subject of a most entertaining paper—we have the late standing as umpire in a game of the rules of which it is quite ignorant." Of course they would, & of the convenience of "whose"="of &c. which" there can really be no question; nor is the risk of ambiguity worth considering, so rare is it in comparison with that of artificial clumsiness. The tabooing of "whose" inanimate is on a level with that of the PREPOSITION AT END; both are great aids to flexibility; both are well established in older as well as in colloquial English; "My thought, Whose murder yet is but fantastical" (Macbeth), & "The fruit Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste Brought death into the world" (Paradise Lost), are merely the first instances that come to mind.

  34. Levantine said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 6:42 pm

    Pflaumbaum, am I wrong in remembering you as a fellow North Londoner? I'm curious to know if other Londoners would ever prefer "The car that's wheel is missing" to "The car whose wheel is missing"; the first sounds utterly alien to me. But perhaps it's all just academic, as I'm sure that most Londoners (you and me included) would say "The car with the missing wheel."

  35. Victoria Simmons said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 7:29 pm

    Matt_M– Yes, I know the difference. But the use of who vs. that is relevant to that of whose vs. thats/that's, especially since myl writes: "Maybe the writer was trying to avoid 'whose' with a non-human head?" My students routinely use 'that' of humans, which suggests to me a general orientation to 'that' and by extension the non-standard 'thats/that's' over 'who/whose.' I wouldn't say that using 'that' of an animate subject in relative clauses is wrong, but I prefer 'who.'

  36. Chris Waters said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 5:36 am

    West Coast US speaker here, and I'm going to agree with Brett. I would find this unremarkable in speech, but it does look a little odd when written. But "whose" with an inanimate referent just feels wrong.

    In formal writing, I would probably try to rephrase to avoid the construction completely, but in an even-slightly informal setting, I would probably shrug and leave it as-is.

  37. John Walden said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 8:02 am

    "I guess it fills a gap in the English language for those (like me) who do not use "whose" as a relative pronoun for inanimate antecedents"

    "I too find "whose" with a non-human reference peculiar"

    "Though I can't say for certain I wouldn't ever use " whose" with inanimate objects, I can say that doing so feels wrong enough……."

    I respect all views but I've got to ask anyone who agrees with these opinions what one word they think is missing from this sentence:

    "Isn't that the house ______ windows we used to break when we were kids?"

    Or do they think that there simply isn't an answer to the question?

    I don't think the answer is "that's". "That's a new one on me.

  38. Eric P Smith said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 8:21 am

    @John Walden

    As a kid I was taught "the house of which the windows we used to break" But it's horrible and I wouldn't use it now. I'd probably say "the house we used to break the windows of".

    Except that I was also taught not to break windows.

  39. GeorgeW said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 8:47 am

    @John Walden: "Or do they think that there simply isn't an answer to the question?" I would suggest filling the blank with the following:

    "Isn't that the house with the windows we used to break . . ."
    "Isn't that the house that had the windows we used to break . . ."

  40. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 9:19 am

    @ Levantine-

    Yes that's right, pretty much the same age and background as you from what I recall.

    You're right, I overstated it – actually I'm unsure on this one. MYL's initial example sounded pretty bad, the CGEL one somewhat less so, and the car that's wheel is missing is verging into merely very colloquial. It reads really oddly on the page but when I say it out loud it sounds marginal.

    Though it could be I'm getting some interference from relative constructions like the car that's got a wheel missing.

    Re other Londoners, I just did a highly rigorous experiment with four friends over coffee (chucking it into conversation and then asking if it 'sounded weird'). All participants thirties middle-class N. Londoners, 3 RP/BBC and one RP/'Estuary'. I got a fifty-fifty split. The two who found it weird were linguists.

    I'm surprised that the car whose wheel is missing is something you'd say in colloquial conversation. I certainly use the construction with inanimate antecedent in conversation – in fact I noticed myself using it the other day – but for me it's marked for high style. Similar to using whom in that respect – though things need to get seriously formal before I use that without a preposition as head.

  41. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 9:37 am

    @ John Walden

    Yes it has something of the feel of those sentences you can't form without violating a Ross Constraint. Like There were people at the party that I didn't even know who they were.

    You either have to use an ungrammatical resumptive pronoun as above, or settle for something with a slightly different meaning, like there were people at the party that I didn't even know. Or recast the sentence, as something like there were people at the party whose identity I didn't even know or I didn't even know who some of the people at the party were.

  42. Matt_M said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    I agree with GeorgeW — it's possible to avoid using "whose" to convey these meanings without much difficulty. On the other hand, the possessive relative is a handy construction, which is the point of my remark about "that's" filling a gap.

    @John Walden: it isn't really a matter of having an "opinion" on the matter of whether "whose" can be used for inanimate antecedents. I agree that in standard English they can. It's just that in my own ideolect (and apparently that of many others), it doesn't happen. It's an unconscious preference, not a choice or opinion. My own guess is that ideolects that prohibit inanimate relative "whose" are especially likely to innovate "that's" as a new possessive relative.

  43. Robert Coren said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 9:59 am

    Am I the only one who remembers "An idea whose time has come" as a common (and entirely standard) cliché? Relative that's feels utterly strange to me.

  44. Martha said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 10:05 am

    I think it's interesting that some commenters have said that "that's" seems to be informal and unwritten. In French class about five years ago, my French teacher (a native French speaker) questioned whether "whose" could be used with something other than a person, which resulted mostly in mumbling from the class, but one girl spoke up and said that she thought that was something that people said but that she didn't think we were "supposed to." She didn't offer "that's" as an alternative, but she seemed to be indicating that "whose" was informal. By this time, my teacher had moved on, but I told the girl that of course "whose" can be used with non-people.

    Now I wish I'd asked this girl where she was from. I'm from Oregon and I don't recall ever hearing "that's" before now. I also believe her to have been a few years younger than me.

  45. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 10:13 am

    You can find examples like this


    But examples of "song whose melody" are much, much more frequent.

  46. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 10:13 am

    @ Martha-

    That sounds like an extension of the idea that the genitive of nouns in English can only be used of animates, with a few exceptions like measures of time.

    Non-native speakers are often taught this as an iron-clad rule, rather than a tendency.

  47. Levantine said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 10:24 am

    Pflaumbaum, did you ask your friends about inanimate "whose"? It's funny that you compare it to "whom", which I almost never use outside very formal writing. In fact, I'd always thought I was verging on colloquial when using inanimate "whom", but perhaps that's because I knew I was defying the "of which" prescription and didn't know about the existence of "that's".

    I asked my American Midwestern boyfriend about this last night, and he too said he found inanimate "whose" odd and avoided it in speech and writing. Yet he's never once noticed it when proofreading for me, even though I use it quite liberally. Moreover, he said his use of "whose" was restricted to humans specifically, which made me wonder what commenters here think in this connection. Would "The cow whose eyes are closed" work because the referent is animate, or does it sound as strange to some as the car example? And (though this raises a different issue) what about "The family whose house I stayed in"?

  48. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 10:27 am

    @ Jonathan Mayhew

    There are 17,900 hits for "a car that's engine". That's 2 orders of magnitude more than I've found for any other object, so far, so I'm not sure what's going on.

  49. Levantine said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    Having revisited some of the comments above, I see that that the human/animate distinction has already been discussed. It seems that we're really dealing with an aversion to non-human (and not just inanimate) "whose".

  50. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 10:53 am

    OK here's something potentially interesting… the Google hits seem to go up when the antecedent is indefinite:

    "A car that's engine" – 17,900
    "The car that's engine" – 4

    "A car that's exhaust" – 142
    "The car that's exhaust" – 2

    "A car that's wheels" – 944

    "The car that's wheels" – 0

    "A house that's door" – 120

    "The house that's door" – 8

    "A cat that's tail" – 74

    "The cat that's tail" – 2

    But a closer match:

    "A book that's cover" – 18,400

    "The book that's cover" – 7,930

    In these cases the NP + subordinator alone – "A car that" v "The car that" – yields more hits for the definite version.

    @ Levantine

    I'd be very surprised if anyone objected to the family whose house…

    No sorry I forgot to ask about whose. I'll set up another experiment. I hope none of my friends read this… they all think I actually like them, rather than just meeting up so I can spy on their grammar. (I once spent an evening at the pub planting questions that encouraged the use of co-ordinated pronouns, so I could observe the effects of alcohol on the quantity of accusatives in subject position. But unfortunately I failed to maintain experimental distance from the reagent, and results were inconclusive.)

  51. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    Interesting. There are more than 400,000 for "car whose engine."

  52. RP said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 11:27 am

    Possessive "that's" doesn't sound too bad to me, although I don't think I'd use it, and I would be surprised to see it in writing. I think inanimate "whose" is fine, and even if it is slightly formal, I'd use it more readily than I'd use "whom". I think I occasionally use inanimate "whose" in conversation, and I wouldn't feel embarrassed to do so, whereas conversational "whom" is always very self-conscious and on the rare occasions that I use it, it usually makes me feel like I'm either being pompous or joking.

    'The possessive form of that-the-complementizer seems wrong to me, presumably for the same reason that "that" doesn't work in e.g. "a career the relevance of which/*that is in decline", or "… the prison from which/*that they escaped".'

    I don't think this is necessarily the reason that it doesn't work, given that you wouldn't use the possessive "which's" either.

  53. Ellen K. said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 2:58 pm


    What tabooing of "whose" with an inanimate object? I haven't seen any here, certainly.

  54. Levantine said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

    Ellen K., as I said very clearly in that comment, the entire last paragraph is quoted from Fowler and relates to a somewhat different aspect of the issue from the one currently under discussion. The commenters here may not be censuring or tabooing inanimate "whose", but I think their unease with its use does intersect in interesting ways with the old-fashioned "rule" addressed by Fowler. I'm curious to know whether this intersection is coincidental or not. Did the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century grammatical objections to inanimate "whose" affect colloquial usage, or has their always been a colloquial tendency to avoid the construction? Based on the comments above, I suspect the case varies by dialect/idiolect, and a blanket answer is probably impossible.

  55. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 3:46 pm

    I've never read Fowler, or indeed any other similar work, or been exposed in my youth to ill-informed pseudogrammatical pedantry of the Strunk/White type, so there's no question of my usage being consciously influenced by such things.

    But for me, "whose" carries such a strong implication of a human reference that expressions like "the house whose roof" seem like weird anthropomorphisms.

    Obviously (a) I am not alone and (b) there are nevertheless plenty of native speakers who use "whose" absolutely freely with non-human reference.

    I don't think the limitation is hard to explain, for those of us who actually have it: "who" (and "whom", if you must) imply personality; "whose" is transparently part of the same paradigm; so by analogy it gets limited to reference to persons. No intervention by misguided pedants is needed to explain this.

  56. Levantine said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

    David Eddyshaw, I never suggested that you or anyone else whose idiolect excludes inanimate "whose" were readers of Fowler or any other usage writer. I merely wondered whether the old-fashioned rule that "whose" should never be used of inanimate referents had, at least in some contexts, helped to bring about continuing opposition to the construction. I don't think such a line of inquiry is really so far fetched given the survival of various pseudo-grammatical zombie rules among the general population, often at the hands of misguided educators. One doesn't need to have read any usage works to have been indirectly affected by their contents. Now clearly, the traditional dialectal uses of "that's" which some of the commenters above have pointed to (as in Scots) are another matter and have their own explanations, but I'm sure that many speakers of more "standard" varieties of English who avoid inanimate "whose" have, whether knowingly or not, been influenced by the old rule.

  57. Levantine said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

    Oh, and please excuse my use of "their" for "there" in my earlier comment. All this talk of possessives is clearly getting to me!

  58. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 5:06 pm

    I've actually had trouble with this, feeling uncomfortable with an inanimate whose. However, my sense is that this may an artifact of overly deliberate writing and a somewhat recent development. Or not.

    Because I also feel that possessive that's is part of my spoken idiolect and always has been. It's a conundrum.

  59. Francis Tyers said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 5:09 pm

    Compare with the same use of what…

    From Google results:

    … unless you were foolish enough to purchase a car what's engine was optimized to run on hi octane

    Your [sic] like an old car what's engine has gone on it completely.
    They may have some limited book smarts but that is like gas in a car what's engine doesn't work.

    I've definitely heard this use in speech (East Midlands, England), but more normal would be "that's"

    A car that's engine doesn't work ← This one is normal.
    A car whose engine doesn't work ← Weird because of inanimate.
    A car what's engine doesn't work ← This one I would mark as dialectal.

  60. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

    David Eddyshawe's theory seems quite likely. As far as I understand it – someone correct me if I'm wrong – Middle English which could be either inanimate or animate (Our father, which art in Heaven). And who was quite infrequent as a relative pronoun in its nominative form. But which had lost its case inflections by then, so whos, the genitive of who (and what), spread to cover which as well.

    Gradually the modern gender distinction developed between the plain forms who and which, but it was neutralised in the genitive because Modern English retained whose for both. But since whose sounds like who and not like which, it makes sense that some people don’t ‘feel’ the syncretism. Especially as it's not available as a genitive for interrogative which (or what).

  61. Levantine said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

    Pflaumbaum, surely one would have to trace the history of inanimate "whose" in colloquial English to know whether such intuitive aversion (if I may call it that) is all there is to it. People who avoid the construction may well feel that way now, but was there a time when inanimate "whose" was usual in at least some varieties of spoken English before pseudo-grammatical peevery started to have a trickle-down effect? Fowler for one thought that colloquial idiom was on his side. Again, I'm not suggesting that people sat around reading prescriptivist grammars and changed their speech accordingly. But there are plenty of examples of once widespread usages (e.g., weak pronunciation of "my" and the days of the week; adverbs without "-ly") that have fallen from standard use at least in part because of prescriptivist censure. I have no idea whether anything similar happened with inanimate "whose", though I can't help wondering about the possibility.

  62. Chris Waters said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 10:41 pm

    Another important question: is "the car that's engine is broken" more restrictive than "the car which's engine is broken"? :)

    (And for the record, yes, I can imagine saying either of those in an informal setting, though it was a little tricky to force myself to type them.)

  63. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 4:23 am

    @ Levantine –

    Good point. I don't know whether the relative form of whos(e) was always associated with high registers, though I suspect it wasn't.

    Come to think of it, how many other prescriptive rules are there against typically 'high' usages? It seems unusual.

  64. RP said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 4:33 am

    Like Francis Tyers, I have certainly heard "what's" used in this way (as well as "that's", as I said before). However, unlike Chris Waters, I am pretty sure I have never heard "which's", and find it difficult to imagine anyone saying it.

    Fwiw, I grew up in the East Midlands, lived in Oxford for ten years and currently live in York.

  65. RP said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 4:53 am

    I should have specified that I am from the UK.

    Those of you who say that "whose", for you, is restricted to humans, do you mean that literally, or just that it has a similar restriction to "who"? Now, presumably, "who" isn't restricted to humans. For example, if you have a pet dog called George, can't you say "George, who was hungry, …"? And therefore can't you also say "George, whose tail was wagging, …"?

    I think that if "whose" is strictly human-only for anyone then either these people restrict "whose" more than they restrict "who", or they restrict "who" more than I would.

    Similarly don't we use "he/she" of animals whose gender we are aware of, but "it" of those animals we are unaware of? You can pretty much use "it" for all animals if you want to (as well as for babies) or you can go the other way and maximise "he/she" use, guessing genders where you don't know them. "Animacy" seems the most convenient word for this, but I presume that those with the narrower understanding of "whose" have a narrower range for "whose" than they do for "he/she", since I think there are circumstances where I'd use "he/she" of an animal (for instance, a non-pet whose gender I'd been told) but wouldn't use "who" of the same animal.

  66. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 6:16 am


    I would say that "who" implies personhood, rather than animacy. Whether you can use it of your dog depends on whether you attribute personality to it. Him. Her.

    One might use him/her of a dog when focussing on the sex even without thinking of the animal as having personality, which might explain possible mismatches.

    @Pflaumbaum, Levantine:

    It must be possible actually to check whether "whose" with non-personal reference is a survival of an old usage (so that those of us who eschew it have constructed a new rule by analogy with "who") or is itself an innovation.

    Come to think of it, wouldn't the early modern English equivalent be "whereof"?
    "The house, whereof the roof is fallen …"

    Anybody out there with a concordance to the Authorised Version (King James Version to you Americans …)?

    It'd be the work of a moment to look up "whose." I shall now zoom off to try to find a searchable text on the intertubes.

  67. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 6:21 am

    Well, that didn't take long. I was wrong:

    Genesis 11:4 4

    And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

    (Linguistic interest too …)

  68. Adrian said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 7:44 am

    @Pflaumbaum (and everyone): Don't forget that Google's hit counts are broken. There aren't thousands of hits for "the car that's engine", there are 68. (Check for yourself.)

  69. Adrian said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 7:45 am


  70. Levantine said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 10:15 am

    David Eddyshaw, I thought we all agreed anyway that the usage had a very long literary history (my quotation above from Fowler mentions Shakespeare and Milton). What is less easy to establish is how widespread (if at all) inanimate "whose" was in everyday speech over the centuries. Though it doesn't really answer the question, this article from Arrant Pedantry is pretty interesting, and traces the ancestor of inanimate "whose" all the way back to Old English: http://www.arrantpedantry.com/2011/10/29/whose-pronoun-is-that/

    With regard to "what's" in this function, that actually sounds a lot less strange to me than "that's" (and certainly "which's"). I'm pretty sure I've heard this type of "what's" (together, of course, with relative "what") in television portrayals of regional accents (Mrs. Bridges from _Upstairs, Downstairs_ comes to mind as someone who might have said it).

  71. Brett said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 11:32 am

    @Levantine: Portrayals of dialect using "what" or "what's" are familiar to me as well. However, I don't think I've every heard them in person. To me, they are strongly indicative of a specifically British non-standard dialect. I can't read a sentence like that without putting it into a not-very-post British accent, and I'm pretty sure the construction does not exist in any American dialect I'm familiar with. (I can't say that there aren't any non-British, non-American dialects that don't also use it, but I don't know of any examples that do, either.)

  72. Levantine said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 11:42 am

    Brett, I once heard a friend from Derbyshire say something like "The house what I lived in", but like you, I know of this usage (and the related "what's") mainly from fictional portrayals. And, like you, I can't recall having heard any non-British instances of it (though I'm sure they're attested).

  73. Ethan said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

    At least one usage seems to have become a fixed phrase in politics. It may originally have been intended as a just-plain-folks aphorism.

    "There is an old political adage that goes: "Always dance with the one what brought you" and it means that political debts must be always be repaid." Singapore

    "It’s not fair to ask people who care about social justice and human rights to vote for you and to then spend your entire term cowtowing to the right because you’re afraid of not getting re-elected, or of pissing off your corporate sponsors. Dance with the one what brought you, I say." US

  74. Ethan said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 12:33 pm

    Lost the URL on that second citation: "Dance with the one what brought you" US
    also US sports

  75. Levantine said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

    Tying in with Ethan's point, I just found a piece entitled "It Was Lehman Wot Did It" from the NYT: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/it-was-lehman-wot-did-it/

    I wonder if this example is a self-consciously Britishising reference back to the (in)famous "It's The Sun Wot Won It" headline (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It's_The_Sun_Wot_Won_It).

    It's interesting (particularly in light of today's PSDS post) to note the use of eye dialect in these instances.

  76. Brett said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

    Any use of "what" in an American context, I would take as an intentional Britishism, especially with the eye dialect "wot." Krugman is an Anglophile (as am I), and while he might be familiar with that Sun headline, I doubt many of his readers would. (I had heard the headline quoted in British contexts before, but I didn't know what it referred to until I looked it up just now, and Krugman's hed would never have conjured it up.)

    I don't think the saying about dancing is a fixed expression (although see below). When I hear it used, I don't think it usually has "what," and there is considerable variation in how it is phrased. However, it cannot be freely paraphrased without losing its effect. I remember hearing a commentator rephrase it completely a couple of days ago, and that definitely attracted my attention; it did not sound right the way he said it.

  77. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

    What in this context is common in working-class speech all across London and out into Kent and other counties to the east (where Cockney is actually more robust than in its traditional heartland of East London). It's also present in other non-standard dialects from the North to the West Country.

    What I'm much less sure about is what's. You can hear that shop what's opened any day of the week, but as a genitive, as in that car what's wheels got clamped, sounds off, in much the same way MYL's that's does. But I'm not a native speaker of Cockney so I could well be wrong.

  78. Gunnar H said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 3:22 pm

    @Ethan: I've always heard that expression as "Always dance with the one what brung ya." (Specifically, I'm pretty sure it was used on The West Wing in this form.) The non-standard conjugation no doubt meant to reinforce the "folksy" tone.

    The topic is fascinating. Possessive "thats" (or "that's") is not part of any English I ever learned (as a non-native speaker), and if not for all the testimonies of people in this thread, I would have dismissed the original example as an editing flub, probably from recasting "that's been declining in relevance."

  79. Rodger C said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

    The possessive of "it" was "his" until the 17th century. I was taught that the first use of "its" in literary prose was Milton's "The mind is its own place," where Satan is being emphatic (and unambiguous). I'm sure "its" sounded as odd then as "that's" soes now.

  80. Rodger C said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

    And of course I know Paradise Lost wasn't written in prose.

  81. Peter Dombrowsky Schult said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

    Off the cuff, <that's> (or <thats>, to parallel <it's>/<its>) seems entirely grammatical to me (especially if /æ/ gets reduced to [ə]). I'll admit that the "Standard" English module in my head sounds a bit of an alarm, but who/*whom/whose seems to require a person (whether Homo sapiens or some entity given personhood in context) as antecedent in my idiolect. I'll have to pay attention to whether I say things like

    A paper thats impact has been overrated


    A paper whose impact has been overrated

  82. Levantine said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    Rodger C, I imagine that "its" was already being used for some time in spoken English before it found its way onto the written page, so perhaps it didn't seem all that odd to Milton's readers. Based on all the comments here, the same thing may well be happening with "that[']s".

  83. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 9:44 pm

    Inanimate "whose" is in an odd situation: it sounds wrong to a lot of people, but the better class of prescriptivists (Fowler, Garner, etc.) accept or even recommend it. They're sort of anti-peeving.

    Rodger C: The OED's first citation of "its" is

    "1577 R. Robinson Certain Select Hist. Christian Recreations sig. B.vii, There stands a bedde, its death to tell."

    It has citations for possessive "it" back to 1400.

  84. Andrew (yet another one) said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 8:22 am

    Australian data point: Like (only) one or two above, I can confidently state that I have never used "that's" in the sense in question, nor – as far as I can recall – read it or heard anyone else use, it before the debate above. Well, hardly ever. I am entirely comfortable with inanimate "whose".

  85. Michael Watts said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 9:57 am

    US mostly-California data point: I don't find the possessive that's exceptional at all. To me it occupies similar space to gapless relatives, except that deep in my soul I "know" that gapless relatives aren't quite right whereas for whatever reason I can accept that's. I stay interested in gapless relatives because despite feeling that they're slightly ungrammatical I still use them anyway; there are some sentences that just can't be plausibly recast (like the earlier example "a person who you don't even know who they are").

    I don't understand at all the idea in the thread that "that's" should be "regularized" to "thats", surely regularization would go in the other direction. Look at how many people spell "its" with the apostrophe; a large part of that is coming from 's being the regular way to spell the possessive marker. Just because "he" and "she" have (obviously) irregular possessives doesn't mean "it" and "that" have to, especially when, in terms of pronunciation, "it" and "that" don't have irregular possessives.

  86. Robert said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 5:12 am

    @Matt_M. I'm Australian an inanimate whose is perfectly normal to me. An idea whose time has come, perhaps.

  87. Gunnar H said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 9:07 am

    @Michael Watts:

    Yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs, whose…

    All the personal possessive pronouns (+whose) are apostrophe-less. The main reason for mistakes is probably just the frequency of homophones: you might explain "it's" and "who's" from the general pattern of forming possessives, but certainly not "they're" or "you're" (for the possessive determiner), nevertheless quite frequently seen.

    Whether "thats"/"that's" should follow this spelling pattern seems like a fairly subjective question to me. Indefinite pronouns like "one's" and "either's" do take the apostrophe, after all.

    Personally I would argue for omitting it, for two reasons: (1) the close parallel with "its" and "whose"; and (2) because I would otherwise tend to read it as a contraction of "that is/has", and this would lead me down many garden-path sentences.

    I'm curious whether, if this becomes more widely established, people will extend it to other uses by analogy with "his"/"her"/"its". For example, "Thats importance cannot be overstated" instead of "The importance of that cannot be overstated"?

  88. medrecgal said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

    The use of "that's" in the original construction is awkward to me, but using a form of who to describe inanimate objects is not quite right to me, either. I would completely revise a sentence or headline to avoid this construction altogether, as, "…seen as a dead-end career with declining relevance". Then you avoid the who/that awkwardness and still have a sentence that says the same thing as the original. Or, in another example, instead of saying "the car whose engine is broken" (or "thats engine is broken"), I'd use "The car with a broken engine".

  89. ajay said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 4:27 am

    a hilariously misleading beginning: "Just In: Air Force fires nine nuclear missile commanders over two-year cheating scandal".

    Misleading because, presumably, in US English "cheating" now exclusively implies "marital infidelity"?

  90. ajay said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 4:38 am

    I ask because it's not misleading in UK English. (Part of that may be context; you wouldn't get fired for infidelity in the UK armed forces. It'd seem a bit hypocritical because, you know, Nelson.)

  91. Levantine said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 8:25 am

    ajay, I believe it's misleading because of the two senses of "fires" (in this case referring to the dismissal of the commanders, but initially apt to be misread as describing the launching of nuclear missiles).

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