[Middle English whos, from Old English hwæs; see kwo- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]
Usage Note: The use of whose to refer to inanimate antecedents (as in We could see a building whose roof was painted gold) has been criticized by usage commentators since the 1700s. The tradition holds that whose should function only as the possessive of who, and be limited in reference to persons. Nonetheless, whose has been used to refer to inanimate things since the 1300s, and it appears in the works of many illustrious writers, including Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. This use of whose undoubtedly serves a useful purpose, since which and that do not have possessive forms, and the substitute phrase of which is often cumbersome. Thus, the sentence He pointed to a grove of trees whose trunks were coated with ice is made somewhat stilted by the avoidance of whose: He pointed to a grove of trees, the trunks of which were coated with ice. As sentences become more complicated, the use of of which can be especially clumsy. But the notion of whose properly being a form of who (and not which) has considerable bearing on attitudes about the word. In our 2002 survey, only 44 percent of the Usage Panel approved of an example in which whose refers to a river: The EPA has decided to dredge the river, whose bottom has been polluted for years. The association of whose with people undoubtedly influenced the Panel's response to an example that is syntactically similar to the previous one, in which the antecedent is a book, but the subject of the whose clause is a person. Some 63 percent of the Panel accepted the sentence The book, whose narrator speaks in the first person, is a mock autobiography. Note that this still leaves almost 40 percent of the Panel in disapproval. Because the alternative phrasing to whose can be so awkward, there is often no easy solution to this problem except to recast the sentence to avoid whose altogether. See Usage Notes at else, which, who.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.