Whose vs. Who’s: What’s the Difference?

Writers occasionally confuse these two words, which sound alike but have different meanings and functions in the sentence. It is very important, however, for the writer, the student, the job applicant, etc., to have a mastery of whose vs. who’s because a failure to do so can be a costly mistake.

Similar to other basic writing mistakes like its / it’s, many consider confusing whose and who’s a socially distinctive marker in one’s writing ability, i.e., if your writing frequently contains this error, you may be accused of sloppy writing or—worse yet—sloppy thinking.

But, there’s no need to worry.

The difference between these two words is incredibly straightforward, and once you understand what separates who’s vs. whose, you won’t have anymore trouble.

What is the Difference Between Whose and Who’s?

In this post, I want to summarize the differences between these two words. I will go over their uses and functions in a sentence and discuss the problem areas associated with them.

After reading this post, you won’t ever mistake whose or who’s again.

When to Use Whose

who's versus whose grammarWhat does whose mean? Whose is the possessive form of the pronoun who and is defined as belonging to or associated with which person. When used in a sentence, it usually (but not always) appears before a noun. For example,

  • Whose turn is it to move?
    • In this example, whose appears before the noun turn. Whose is acting as an interrogative pronoun.
  • He’s a gambler and maneuverer whose bold moves are not testaments to vision or cojones but to the unhealthiness of his domestic political situation. –The Wall Street Journal
    • In this WSJ example, whose appears before the adjective bold, which is describing the noun moves. Whose is acting as a relative pronoun.
  • Whose car is this?
    • In this example, whose appears before the noun car. Whose is acting again as an interrogative pronoun.

Whose functions the same way that other possessive pronouns work like its and yours. If you know what makes its and it’s different, you know what makes whose and who’s different.

When to Use Who’s

whose versus who's meaning and examplesWhat does who’s mean? Who’s is a contraction of who is or who has. For example,

  • Who’s coming to the party tonight?
  • Who’s been to Chicago?

In the first sentence, who’s stands for who is. Who is coming to the party tonight? In the second sentence, who’s stands for who has. Who has been to Chicago?

In both sentences, who’s is being used as a contraction.

Why is There Confusion: Who’s vs. Whose?

Some native English speakers and writers might have trouble understanding why this is confusing topic for English language learners. The difference is relatively straightforward.

The reason why these words can be confusing is that, generally, to make a word possessive in English you will add an ‘s on the end. For instance,

  • The cat’s toy. (This toy belongs to the cat.)
  • The book’s pages. (These are the pages within the book.)

This is not the case with pronouns like who, your, it. These words have their own possessive form, rather than taking on an apostrophe to show possession.

This helps to avoid confusion on the reader’s part. If we didn’t have a separate word like whose, it wouldn’t be clear if the writer meant to say who is or belonging to who.

Tricks to Remember the Difference

sentences using whose and whos correctlyThere is one easy trick to determine which of these words is the correct choice for your sentence. If you substitute who is for either who’s or whose, you can easily tell which is the correct choice. For example,

  • Whose car are we taking?
  • Who’s the person in charge here?

If we substitute who is into both of these sentences, we can see which is correct.

  • Who is car are we taking?

This sentence doesn’t make any sense when we put in who is, so we know whose was the correct choice.

  • Who is the person in charge here?

This sentence makes perfect sense when we put who is in place of who’s, so we know that who’s is fine to use.

Can Whose Refer to Inanimate Objects?

Since the 1700s, grammarians and usage commentators have held that whose can only be used as the possessive of who, not which. In other words, whose can only refer to people, not inanimate antecedents.

  • The people, whose ideas are gaining ground, are staging a protest.
  • The river, whose water runs deep, is vital for trade and commerce.

Under this understanding of whose, the first example would be acceptable since it refers to people. The second example, which refers to a river, would be an unacceptable use of whose.

This is still a delicate topic to this day, but the prohibition on whose as a possessive for which seems to be waning.

In its usage note on whose, The American Heritage Dictionary shows there to be large opposition when applying whose to inanimate objects. However, Garner’s Modern English Usage, The Chicago Manual of Style, and Fowler’s all hold that whose can be used in this sense.

The reason it matters is because this use of whose can be helpful at times, since which and that do not have possessive forms and substituting of which can be cumbersome.

Given that today’s most popular usage guides and style manuals have come to accept this use of whose, you should feel safe to use it in your writing. There still may be some who object, but this use has entered the mainstream.

Summary

Is it whose or who’s? That depends on the context of your sentence.

Whose is the possessive form of who and sometimes which.

Who’s is a contraction for either who is or who has.