Q&A: Who’s vs whose

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week who is confused when using who's and whose?

Q: Hi AWC, I have a question for you.

A: Great. Shall we get started then?

Q: I don’t see any reason why we would.

A: Oh, we thought you… Never mind then.

Q: What? Oh sorry, I meant to say I don’t see any reason why we WOULDN’T get started. Easy mistake.

A: Uh huh.

Q: So speaking of W words, I want to know how to tell “who’s” and “whose” apart please. Can you help?

A: Who’s to say if we can or not?

Q: Right, sure.

A: And whose answer will you even accept?

Q: Yes okay, I see what you’re doing there.

A: This one trips up a lot of people, but it’s really quite simple. Let’s start with “who’s” – here the apostrophe has just ONE job: to contract two words into one. So it takes “who is” or “who has” and turns them into “who’s”. Simple as that.

Q: But it LOOKS like it should be wearing its possessive hat too, yeah?

A: That’s because we typically apply possession to nouns and proper nouns with apostrophes – i.e. “John’s truck” or “Jane’s boat” or “the truck’s engine”. But that doesn’t mean that all possessives work this way.

Q: To be fair, most do.

A: Sure, but sometimes the apostrophe is just there for the contraction – you might say it is contractually obliged to be there.

Q: Nice. So I guess that means in this case the possessive job belongs to “whose”?

A: That’s right. For example, “Whose truck is that?”

Q: It’s John’s.

A: Okay thanks. Another example is the TV show, “Whose Line is it Anyway?” or “we don’t know whose boat it is”.

Q: Yes we do. It was Jane who had the boat. Keep up.

A: Anyway, that’s the sole job of “whose” – defining which person to assign something to.

Q: Any handy tips on remembering which one to use?

A: Well the easiest thing is always just to read it out loud as the uncontracted version, and if it makes sense, use “who’s” – if it doesn’t, use “whose”.

Q: Please explain.

A: So if you were trying to figure out if it should be “Whose truck is that?” or “Who’s truck is that?” – see if saying “Who is truck is that?” or “Who has truck is that?” makes sense.

Q: No. It doesn’t.

A: So then your answer is “whose”.

Q: And if a parrot said “who’s a pretty boy then?” – saying “who is a pretty boy” makes sense, so it keeps the “who’s” spelling.

A: Exactly.

Q: This all sounds very familiar.

A: It’s an identical rule to “it’s” and “its” – arguably the world’s most controversial duo since John and Yoko.

Q: Is this the same John who owns the truck?

A: No, a different one. Although some say that Yoko owned a Beatle.

Q: Boom tish.

A: So just like who’s/whose, “it’s” is used solely for “it is” or “it has”, while “its” is the possessive version. For example: “It’s amazing how a parrot uses its voice box to replicate sounds.”

Q: Who’s to say if that’s amazing or not? You and whose army?

A: Perfect.

Q: But what about the thing Canadians connect to a tap and use to water the garden?

A: That’s a “hose” – it just sounds like “whose” when they say it.

Q: Oh okay. So to finish, can you give me a sentence incorporating everything we learnt today in a Doctor Who theme?

A: Sure. “When a dozen Doctor Whos show up at the comic convention, there’s no telling who’s the real one or whose costume is the best – theirs or the real Doctor Who’s.”

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!


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