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We lit a fire whose fuel was old timber wood.

Is the word whose referring to fire, an inanimate object, correct in this sentence? Or is there a more appropriate word?

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Related: 'Which', 'whose' or something else? –  RegDwigнt Apr 30 '12 at 9:09
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4 Answers

up vote 23 down vote accepted

The word "whose" is used in several different grammatical ways. For some of these (see my original answer below), it has been grammatical to use it for inanimate objects, at least since the days of Shakespeare. For others (see my update), it is only used for people or animals.

ORIGINAL ANSWER:

Many people seem to believe that you cannot use whose for inanimate objects, but I don't believe this was ever proscribed except by out-of-control grammarians. Consider the following quotes from Shakespeare (selected from many more quotes where whose refers to an inanimate object):

Troilus and Cressida, IV.v

Yond towers, whose wanton tops do buss the clouds,
Must kiss their own feet.

Hamlet I.v

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Two Gentlemen of Verona, III.ii

By wailful sonnets, whose composed rhymes
Should be full-fraught with serviceable vows.

Timon of Athens IV.iii

The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears:

UPDATE: I just realized that whose is used in several different grammatical ways. In some of these ways, I would never use whose for anything but a person or animal. In particular, one of whose's uses is as an interrogative pronoun, as in:

Whose shoes are these?
Whose are these shoes?

If you had some leaves, and were asking which tree they fell off of, you cannot say:

*Whose leaves are these?
*Whose are these leaves?

You have to say something like

Which tree's leaves are these?

But when it is a relative pronoun that immediately follows its antecedant, whose can be used for inanimate objects:

The tree whose leaves look like hands ....

This may be part of the cause of the confusion about whether whose can only be used for people or animals.

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There’s also a common idiom, an idea whose time has come. –  Jason Orendorff May 2 '11 at 23:02
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A random sample of 100 uses of whose from COCA included cases where it referred to a gene; a crime; a compact; a concept; a power company; a now-defunct Internet company; an exclusive resort hotel; Prague; one cave; Pakistan; entrances; parotid masses; light-water reactors; f-shaped holes; high-speed electrons; a model of change; a major city, Chunchikmil; aggressive life-threatening cancers; and the Russian Avant-Garde Foundation. So depending on what you consider “animate”, maybe 19% of the time whose refers to something inanimate. –  Jason Orendorff May 2 '11 at 23:18
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(COCA is the Corpus of Contemporary American English.) –  Jason Orendorff May 2 '11 at 23:20
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As one of those out-of-control grammarians, I like to make a distinction between "who" and "that" in sentences like "This is the knife that was used to kill" and "This is the person who is accused." English does not have a word similar to "whose" that is used for non-humans in the way we use "that" as opposed to "who." For OOC grammarians, like me, it would be nice to have something like "We lit a fire thats fuel was old timber wood," but we'll suffer through the ambiguity. –  oosterwal Jan 4 '13 at 16:01
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@oosterwal That marks you as not an OOC grammarian. A true OOCG would never say that it would be nice if the language had a feature that it lacks. They'd either simply say "whose is wrong for inanimate objects" or else go so far as to say "the correct word is thats and has been for everyone who speaks English properly since the dawn of time" even though they had zero evidence to back it up. –  Jon Hanna Jan 20 '13 at 14:45
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English whose is somewhat like Latin cuius or Spanish cuyo in that it is strictly a function word. It is just fine for anything at all. You cannot use which there.

However, it does make a difference whether you use whose as a relative pronoun or as an interrogative pronoun. This one is ok:

  • These are the fires whose fuel needs replenishing.

But this question:

  • Whose fires need replenishing?

is soliciting an answer of a person, not of a fire. To get the other answer, you have to say:

  • Which fires’ fuel needs replenishing?

You cannot say:

  • Whose fires’ fuels are running low?

And get back a list of fires instead of a list of persons.

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In fact we were taught in school where I was studying English that whose only restricted to inanimates... –  Anixx Apr 30 '12 at 2:36
    
Can I use which it there was singular number, e.g. in "the chair, which material..."? –  Anixx Apr 30 '12 at 2:38
    
You were taught incorrectly. You cannot use which in either place even when it's singular. You could say "the chair, of which the material ..." –  Peter Shor Apr 30 '12 at 2:45
    
It's not that he was taught incorrectly (his post Q. being ok), he's just reversed things in the comment above. He meant animate, is what I think. –  Kris Apr 30 '12 at 6:45
    
@Kris, indeed. Just a typo. –  Anixx Apr 30 '12 at 8:30
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"Whose" is also used to refer to a component of something inanimate and your original is perfectly grammatical. I wonder if you're inventing a problem where there isn't one. If you think using "whose" sounds a bit too formal, you could say e.g. "A camera with wires going through the wall", which would maybe be what people would say in everyday spontaneous speech. It's not clear to me that "a camera of which the wires..." is more common or natural than "a camera whose wires...".

As far as grammatical category is concerned, it really depends on your model and, depending on your model, exactly what type of analysis you're doing. As a fairly broad label, it's probably fair to group it with other "wh-words" ("when", "which" etc.).

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You're right, of course. Here are several thousand camera whose references in writing, the vast majority of which are the same possessive pronoun usage as OP's example. –  FumbleFingers Jul 7 '11 at 2:01
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Wiktionary lists such usage as "formerly proscribed". Presumably this means some would still proscribe it, and others consider it correct.

Personally I have no problem with it, though I would probably say the following:

We lit a fire for which the fuel was old timber wood.

Or, better yet:

We lit a fire, using old timber wood for fuel.

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protected by RegDwigнt May 2 at 9:13

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