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A Grammatical Question

Here’s a grammatical question I have had lately:

The first sentence should seem fairly pedestrian and intelligible..

“The sales associate, whose business card I have at home, did a great job showing the elegance and sophistication of Mac OS X

In this statement, the clause in the appositive (the bit between commas) modifies the subject, “the sales associate”. Now we refer to people by “who” and object by “what” or “which”. Therefore “whose” is based off of “who” and corresponds to a statement about a person.

My question comes about when speaking in a parallel construction as the above about an inanimate object.

“The new server in the data center, ______ IP address I need, runs the elegant and fast Mac OS X.”

You see, I want to use “whose” in that slot, but a machine, even one that runs Mac OS X, is no person. Mice and I agreed that an alternative construction might be:

“The new server in the data center, the IP address of which I need, runs the elegant and fast Mac OS X”.

Yes, that works, but gets a bit clumsy. What oh what could be the word that goes in that slot?

Well, it turns out that it is: “whose”. The guidline of “who is for people, wha/that is for things” is, in the words of “Pirates of the Carribbean” more like a guideline.

Now let us ask, what part of speech and function is the underlined “whose”. Merriam-Webster says:

Main Entry: 1whose
Pronunciation: ‘h?z, ?z
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English whos, genitive of who, what
of or relating to whom or which especially as possessor or possessors , agent or agents , or object or objects of an action

(emphasis mine)

There you have it: “of what anything (person / thing)” is expressed by “whose”.

Thus, to close the loop:

“The new server in the data center, whose IP address I need, runs the elegant and fast Mac OS X.”


In response to a comment I found a site which encourages the use of ‘whose’ to refer to inanimate objects. The author notes that doing so seems to be a shibboleth for good writers versus bad. [ LINK ]