Whose and who’s are commonly confused terms because they sound alike. Luckily, the distinction between them is relatively straightforward. Who’s is a contraction of who is or who has, and whose is a possessive pronoun.
Let’s take a look at a classic comedy sketch for some grammar guidance. In Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First” bit, Abbott explains to Costello that the names of baseball players on the team are Who, What, and I Don’t Know. This, naturally, causes confusion, which leads to Costello asking “Who’s on first?” repeatedly. Poor Costello’s frustration rises each time Abbott confirms that, yes, “Who [the baseball player] is on first.”
Why is this sketch called “Who’s on First” and not “Whose on First?” The answer is simple: As we mentioned above, who’s is a contraction of who is or who has. When Abbott says “Who’s on first,” it is equivalent to “Who is on first.” In fact, at some points during the sketch, he uses these two statements interchangeably. Rarely, when we’re talking about who, is it a proper noun (unless it’s Doctor Who); usually who is a pronoun. This, not to spoil the joke, is where the comedy comes from.
Returning to the grammar question of the hour, whose is a possessive pronoun. How do you use a possessive pronoun? Imagine it’s raining and you grab an umbrella, only to realize later that it isn’t yours. You might ask your friend “Whose umbrella is this?” In other words, you’re asking who owns the umbrella. Whose can refer to things in addition to people. For example, you can say “I’m thinking of a word whose meaning escapes me.” Some people prefer to use of which in these cases, though this often has the effect of making the sentence more clunky. You could rephrase the above with “I’m thinking of a word of which the meaning escapes me.” Both are technically correct. In these situations, it’s best to go with the one that sounds most natural.
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