I guess that’s why they call ‘thats’ the ‘whose’

Reading a review of the 1983 fantasy film Hundra (a feminist knockoff of Conan the Barbarian), I came across a pretty unusual word, albeit one that almost looks perfectly normal. Film historian Paul Mavis, at DVD Talk, says the film’s creators:

set about to make a spoofy fantasy adventure thats focus would be on a gorgeous, blonde, man-hating super-warrior who was subservient to no one.

Few readers would pause over that thats: its meaning is clear in context, and it draws little attention to itself, its ungrammaticality thoroughly overshadowed by the line’s sensational imagery. Who’d be distracted by the subtle asymmetry of English’s relative pronoun system when there are man-hating super-warriors striding about?

Editors, that’s who. And this is one reason I like reading texts that (presumably) aren’t professionally edited: you never know what kind of morphological oddity will appear. And it is a curio: scouring vast language corpora for thats produces only false negatives – apostrophe-less that’s.

Centuries ago, English had various word endings for relative pronouns’ different grammatical cases. For instance, that was þæt, which in the possessive (aka genitive) was þæs. Jonathon Owen has a good rundown of this at Arrant Pedantry. Over time, English lost these inflections and was left with a diminished set – which is why whose and of which now do the work of þæs.

Laurene Landon in Hundra, 1983 film

Hundra (1983)

You can see why even a native speaker and competent writer, for whom whose didn’t come readily to mind (or who felt, erroneously, that it was wrong for a non-human antecedent) might instinctively fill the gap in “an adventure ___ focus would be…” with thats. In a parallel world, it could have developed as a normal part of the relative pronoun system.

But it didn’t, and unless I see thats a few more times, I won’t expect a resurgence. That and which simply don’t have genitive forms like *thats or *which(e)s available in modern standard usage. The option of whose or of which is an imperfect state of affairs, but there it is. Hundra‘s tagline, “She will not be tamed”, goes double for English.

Update:

Arnold Zwicky, by email, has brought to my attention an article by Neal Whitman at the Visual Thesaurus which looks at possessive that’s among other things; and a brief post by John Lawler at Linguist List in 1993, which subsequently featured in at least two books on syntax.

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17 Responses to I guess that’s why they call ‘thats’ the ‘whose’

  1. Do you think this is partly a result of “that” being preferred to “which”, especially by US editors? Is “which” becoming stigmatised and “that” becoming dominant and even extending its uses?

  2. peter mare says:

    Edward and Stan, Not sure why it happens for this particular article or writer (one needs to see if there is a pattern before one can settle the issue). BTW, isn’t it “whose”?

  3. Stan says:

    Edward: Interesting suggestion, but I think it’s more likely to have resulted from traditional proscription of whose with inanimate referents – or from something else entirely.

    Peter: I don’t expect to see a pattern, but it is an interesting usage even as a one-off.

  4. and did it give you the blues?

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @Fern,

      I’m sure you and I weren’t the only sharp ‘hipsters’ who picked up Stan’s clever little backhand homage to Sir Elton John’s mid-career hit*, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues?” in his article ‘header’? HA!

      And that’s all folks!

      *Let’s give equally due credit to Elton’s long-time collaborator/ lyricist, Bernie Taupin, as well.

  5. mollymooly says:

    I got a few google hits with “something thats npl” and “thats npl are” for various npl plural nouns. No doubt many are NNS or brainfarts. The existence of some with apostrophe [thats'] suggests [that's] instances are out there, lost in the clouds of [that's]=that+is.

    - great for someone my age(15) thats feet are still growing
    - I want a man thats hands are not softer than mine
    - Illusory Promise, a contract thats’ terms express such uncertainty of performance that the promisor has not definitely promised to do anything.
    - One that doesn’t freeze up all the time, one that will allow you to rewind and one thats’ chapters are organized by each game we played
    - all in all we are left with a film thats problems are very evident
    - i want to adopt a child thats problems are severe
    - I find it disgusting and just a temporary curtain being put over a country thats problems are endless
    - spend more money on something thats problems has been known sinse i received it
    - I dont need to disproof something thats effects arent even defined.
    - I think we’re just wasting money on trying to fight something thats effects are more mild than what is legal

  6. Mark Flowers says:

    I would never use this construction in my prose, but I feel certain that it is something that I have produced in speech–and heard from other kids growing up in the late 80s.

  7. John Cowan says:

    Surely an editor would correct thats to that’s? :-)

    • Alan Gunn says:

      Maybe an editor who would correct “its” to “it’s.”

      • Alan Gunn says:

        What I mean is, I’d wondered about the apostrophe myself. But isn’t “that” a pronoun, and so exempt from the usual practice of using an apostrophe to form a possessive form?

  8. Stan says:

    Fern: Quite the contrary!

    Alex: I took a quick poll on Twitter, asking if people would prefer a descriptive title or an appalling pun. Guess which won by an overwhelming majority.

    mollymooly: Thank you for these. I should have guessed it would be less rare than I initially imagined. Arnold Zwicky also sent me some data on this, which I’ll add in an update to the post.

    Mark: Interesting. I’m pretty sure I’ve never used it, but it seems to have occasional currency in casual speech – without showing up much in edited writing.

    John, Alan: It turns out that’s is also used this way. But like Alan, I wouldn’t include the apostrophe in this construction. To me, that would seem wronger than using thats for whose in the first place.

  9. TAfromKC says:

    This is one of the best titles for a blog post I’ve ever seen. Well done!

    • Stan says:

      Thank you! I expect it’s also the worst, for some readers.

      • alexmccrae1546 says:

        And there you have it!

        The Twitterverse does not lie! (Right)

        I say give a hearty applause and effusive plaudits for “appalling puns”.

        For me, clever, timely cornball punning, hearing a real word-play groaner once in a while, can brighten up the bleakest of moods, or the dreariest of days. But that’s just me. (Doesn’t take much. HA!)

        There are those comedy purists who regard puns as the weakest form of jocularity, and a last, desperate resort in the humorist’s grab-bag of available tricks.

        I argue, to each his (or her) own.

        To pun, or not to pun, that is NOT the question. (To (mis)quote some off-Old Globe Theater Shakespearian production’s character’s heavy soliloquy…. “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…”… and all that stuff.)

        Again, thanks for your doozy ‘whosey’ header, Stan. It managed to tickle MY funny bone, ’tis all I can say.

  10. puigpantxin says:

    Modern Swedish has ‘dess’ (c.f, as you said Stan, þæs).
    Sometines I think English could do with a makeover.
    Why not ‘thess’?
    And while we’re about it, the simple past of ‘read’ could be redd.

    • Stan says:

      puigpantxin: That’s interesting about dess. I wonder if genitive thats is more likely from people with some knowledge of Scandinavian languages.

      I can’t see redd catching on, but I have regretted the lack of a distinction in English between past and present read. For instance, sometimes I read a tweet that begins “Read [whatever book]” and I think it’s an imperative, when in fact they’re saying “I read…”, past tense.

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