Who’s confused by whose confusion?

The following exchange appears in Jonathan Lethem’s novel Girl in Landscape (on p. 208 of my Faber and Faber edition, 2002):

“I don’t have a home,” said Ben Barth.

“Well, who’s fault is that?” said Wa.

Who’s is a contraction of who is or who has (or occasionally who was): Who’s going? Who’s got tickets? Looks who’s talking; whereas whose is a possessive pronoun – it’s who in the genitive case – so it should have been used in the quoted passage: whose fault is that?

Confusion arises because who’s and whose are pronounced identically, and also because the ’s in who’s can mislead people into thinking it has to do with possession: If the cap isn’t Jo‘s or Jim‘s, then who‘s whose is it? (This apostrophe-led impression of possession probably also inspires the erroneous your’s, her’sour’s and their’s.)

Who’s for whose is a common mistake in informal writing, and it sometimes sneaks past editors too. To keep who’s in its rightful place, you can use the same mnemonic I recommended for it’s and its: just as it’s always means it is or it has, so who’s means who is or who has. Bring this to mind any time you’re uncertain, and you shouldn’t slip up.

I liked Girl in Landscape, incidentally; it’s a coming-of-age story in a sci-fi setting with elements of mystery and western. It also has examples of dialectal would of (We should of killed them; you’d of met him), which I wrote about recently. I’m not a fan of the construction, but since I’ve seen it in dialogue from several capable authors, I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I can’t say the same for who’s fault.

Update:

Another example of the mistake, this time in the Guardian (‘EDM’s shameful secret: dance music singers rarely get paid’, 6 August 2013):

guardian typo - who's whose

And in Seth’s graphic novel It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken:

seth - it's a good life, if you don't weaken - whose who's

Less commonly, the confusion occurs the other way around, as in this article in the Belfast Telegraph:

belfast telegraph whose who's confusion

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18 Responses to Who’s confused by whose confusion?

  1. I blame the editor. They should have caught it. As an elementary school teacher, another favorite of mine is its (the possessive) and it’s ( the contraction).

  2. Eugene says:

    It’s useful to think of whose as a genitive determiner (like your, their, and its) rather than the traditional “possessive pronoun” because it occupies the determiner slot. That way your rule of thumb about contractions applies more generally, addressing four common errors. I agree that it’s an error – maybe just a spelling mistake. Understanding the determiner category is quite helpful for writers and language learners.

  3. Very nice explanation. In my head I know the difference, but I imagine that I’ve let a few of these slip as well. It’s nice to have a clear cut explanation.

  4. Colin McCarthy says:

    That’s fine – now “who” and “whom” are troublesome! If you say “of who I speak” the chances are you will be corrected by some know-it-all. But really isn’t “whom” a bit of a dead duck these days?

  5. Stan says:

    Genealogy Lady: Yes, an editor should have spotted it, or a proofreader. I imagine it passed through several pairs of eyes before publication, yet they all missed it. Confusion over its and it’s is even more widespread; my post on these includes some high-profile examples.

    Eugene: Thanks for the tip about determiners. I agree that it’s a spelling mistake – a common one in casual writing, but rare in books from reputable publishers.

    Julianne: Welcome, and thank you. I think the error is made or overlooked quite often, and quite easily, by people who know the difference but have a moment of inattention. All the more reason for editors to be alert!

    Colin: Whom isn’t a dead duck yet, but its usage has fallen significantly in informal contexts. In elevated writing, and in syntactic constructions like after fronted prepositions (“of whom I speak”), it’s in no immediate danger of disappearing. I wrote at length about the use of whom earlier this year.

  6. Who’s v whose: Is it a rule? What about Jane Austen’s use of “it’s” for “its”, and did she have “her’s” and “their’s”, too? I had to correct “its” twice – it is easy for an apostrophe to slip by with autocorrect). Not to mention her “those sort of things”.

  7. marc leavitt says:

    BasilRathbone

  8. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:
    When Editors snooze,
    ‘Whose’ becomes ‘who’s’

  9. mollymooly says:

    But “one’s”, and then “oneself”.

  10. Stan says:

    Edward: Yes, it’s a rule of spelling in standard English.

    Marc:
    …And readers lose
    Or get the blues.

    Molly: Another potential source of uncertainty.

  11. wisewebwoman says:

    I always put on the brakes when I see this. Always. My own internal auto-correct…

    XO
    WWW

  12. Stan says:

    Edward: You’ll notice the post’s tags and categories include both grammar and spelling. And no, I don’t “like spelling rules more than grammar ones”.

    WWW: It’s an easy one to slip up on, and to overlook once it’s been made, unless one is conscientious about looking out for it.

  13. Eugene says:

    I suggested that we’re dealing with a spelling mistake because I don’t think that native speakers are at all confused about the grammar; that is, I think that they have two different constructions in their mental grammar. They don’t make any mistakes that would suggest a general confusion. It’s just that when it comes time to put them on paper, mistakes occur. Homophones cause problems.
    My definition of grammar is on the narrow side, as I think it’s useful to consider spelling, punctuation, and most usage issues independently of the basic mechanisms of the language.

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