Whose only passive

October 29, 2019

In my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about the placement of only, the passive voice, and the homophones who’s and whose.

Only one right place for ‘only’?’ looks at a word whose ‘correct’ placement has been hotly debated for centuries:

The position of most words in a sentence is self-evident and predictable. Only, used as an adverb, is more flexible. For example, try adding it to various places in the line: I found the eggs in the first shed. Notice how it tends to modify what it directly precedes (or sometimes follows). This ability to affect different elements can generate ambiguity, which has led some prescriptivists to apply an overly strict rule.

Passive voice is not to be shunned’ shows how to identify the passive voice – an ability that seems beyond most of its critics – and why you might want to use it sometimes:

In passive voice we may omit the agent because we don’t know who they are, or it’s implied or unimportant, or we’d rather not say. Mistakes were made, for example, allows someone responsible for those mistakes to avoid implicating themselves. We made mistakes would be a more principled admission. Notice, however, that Mistakes happened and Mistakes were unavoidable also avoid accountability but are in active voice. Many people think that lines like this – without a clear human agent – are passive, but they’re not. Neither has a form of be followed by a past participle.

Finally, ‘Who’s confused by “whose”?’ attempts to sort out a pair of confusables:

Sometimes two tricky areas of English usage – pronouns and apostrophes – combine to create an extra-tricky pair of words. One example is its and it’s, which cause frequent trouble, and so it is with who’s and whose. It’s not just learners of English who confuse them – experienced and native users of the language also slip up. … We’re so used to adding apostrophe-s to show possession (Mary’s art; the dog’s toy) that it seems like who’s and it’s should be possessive as well – but they’re not. This may underlie the error in many cases.


Who’s confused by whose confusion?

December 17, 2012

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

James Crumley’s novel One to Count Cadence (Picador edition, 1994):

james-crumley-one-to-count-cadence-whose-whos

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

belfast telegraph whose who's confusion