On an online typing tutor site I came across the following phrase:

We're now going to move on to words who's first letter originates on the top row.

Can "who" normally be used in this way (to refer not only to people)?


Well, no. The sentence which you quoted must be a typo of:

We’re now going to move on to words whose first letter originates on the top row.

for the following two reasons.

  1. The word “who” only refers to living beings. For non-living beings, “which” is used instead.
  2. The word “who’s” is the contraction of either “who is” or “who has”, but either way, “who’s first letter originates on the top row” is incorrect because it contains two verbs.

The relative pronoun “whose” can refer to non-living beings.

As an aside, I doubt that “(whose) first letter originates on the top row” is a usual way to state that the first letter in a word is in the top row of the keyboard. However, I will not try to write more about it because I am not completely sure and this is not the topic of this question anyway.

  • 1
    "Whose" is used in these situations because "words in which the first letter originates" or "words the first letter of which originates" are both somewhat stilted. Not to mention the awkward use of the word "originate" in this sentence. – Jon Purdy Nov 9 '10 at 18:05

Of course, you can. First of all, it does seems that your sentence must be a typo of:

We’re now going to move on to words whose first letter originates on the top row.

Actually it's a strange case to use the form of who, which is whose when we talk about inanimate or nonliving objects. But since modern English doesn't have different possessive pronoun for nonliving beings, we can use whose for both people and objects.

In fact, Merriam-Webster says, "The notion that ‘whose’ may not properly be used of anything except persons is a superstition".

Some people hadn't been taught about this before, but you shouldn't have believe in the myth either. So in the next time, when you want to use whose for inanimate objects, it's completely fine.

For example:

  1. The table whose legs were broken
  2. The phone whose buttons were broken

Using this style is completely fine in conversations or casual writings. But sometimes it would be a mistake when it comes to bussiness or academic writing. Since people believe in the myths that we can't use whose for nonliving beings.

  • It would not be a mistake in business or academic writing. – AmE speaker Jul 1 '17 at 21:59

protected by tchrist Jul 3 '17 at 12:32

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