When I was a student of English as a foreign language, more years ago than I care to count, I was taught that the relative pronoun “whose” could only be used for human beings, i.e., when someone possesses something. My teachers were native speakers from England, then. Since that time, I’ve seen “whose”, as a relative pronoun, used in several contexts where no human beings are mentioned, e.g. with animals, objects, countries, abstract nouns, etc, in American newspapers and magazines. Unfortunately, I can’t remember any of the sentences and cannot give examples. What is acceptable in written and spoken English, and what isn’t, concerning the use of “whose” ?

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    Yes, it can. It's the only possessive relative pronoun English has, so whenever a possessive relative pronoun is needed, one uses whose. – John Lawler Jan 12 '14 at 23:08
  • "By wailful sonnets, whose composed rhymes..." --- William Shakespeare. – GEdgar Jan 12 '14 at 23:10

Whose can indeed be used in reference to either animate or inanimate entities. Both uses go back to Old English, in which genitive hwæs 'whose' was used in all genders, in despite that nominative hwa 'who' and accusative hwone 'whom' were masculine and feminine, while nominative-accusative hwæt 'what' was solely neuter.

This was a common pattern in Old English: genitives tended to be identical, regardless of gender (with some exceptions in the feminine). The practice continues to the present day.

Often, however, people will prefer genitive of-constructions over genitive nouns when dealing with inanimate entities. Compare the following two sentences: 'this is the front of the house' and 'this is John's favourite book'. As you can see, the first sentence, which deals with inanimate house, forms its genitive with of, whereas the second sentence, which deals with animate John, forms its genitive with an 's. It feels odd to say 'this is the house's front' or 'this is the favourite book of John'.

I find, however, that the same cannot be said for whose and of which. The average speaker tends to say both 'this is the man whose house I saw' and 'this is the book whose pages I read'. Of course, we can also say 'this is the book of which I read the pages', but I hear this second usage less often.

Ultimately, it is a matter of personal preference.

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