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.
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?
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!