English is full of words that sound the same when you say them but are spelt differently and have different meanings. These words are called ‘homophones’, but there’s no real need to know that term. Let’s look into a classic case of sounding the same but meaning something different: whose and who’s.
Should you use who or whose?
One of the basic question words, ‘who’ helps you determine which person is being discussed. ‘Who is in the picture?’ means which person is in the picture. This always refers to a person, though if we are being a bit funny, it can also refer to an animal that is a pet.
Native English speakers really get confused with this one, so if you feel a bit intimidated, you’re not alone. ‘Whom’ is an object pronoun – if you ask a question with it, you should be able to answer with him or her. For example, ‘With whom did you speak?’ and you could answer ‘Him!’. Imagine yourself pointing at someone (even though that would be a bit rude so we’ll just do it in our heads). This is a bit old fashioned sounding, but occasionally it comes up. If you never use it, that’s fine. Most native English speakers avoid it too!
Whose is that?
‘Whose’ is a possessive pronoun we use to figure out the ownership of something. For example: ‘Whose dinosaur fossil is this?’ We could also ask: ‘To whom does this dinosaur fossil belong?’ but this is a very old fashioned sounding thing to say. Someone might say this, but if they do, it will be with a silly British accent and they expect you to laugh. We only use ‘whose’ when speaking or writing about the ownership of a thing or an animal. You can use it with negative to explain you don’t know to whom something belongs, for example: ‘I don’t know whose it is.’ It sounds less awkward to be specific about what ‘it’ is, but this is a common thing to say.
Who’s going to the shop?
‘Who’s’, while sounding identical, means something completely different. It’s a contraction of ‘who is’ or ‘who has’. When you are trying to find out which person is doing something, going somewhere, or speaking, you will use ‘who’s’. For example: ‘Who’s on the phone?’ or ‘Who’s making that terrible noise?’ or ‘Who’s got time for that?!’. This contraction is nearly always used in a question.
This funny phrase means ‘who is who’, which doesn’t really clarify anything, does it? If I were to sit down and explain who every single person was on British television, what shows they were in and where they were born, we would call this ‘explaining who’s who’. Sometimes if there were lots of famous people at an event, like every footballer that has scored a goal in a World Cup match for the last twelve years, you could say ‘it was a real who’s who of football’.
Here’s the trick for remembering who’s or whose
Look at the sentence and see if you could replace the ‘who’s’ or ‘whose’ with ‘who is’. If that doesn’t work, it’s probably ‘whose’. For example: ‘I told them who’s there’. I can expand that to ‘I told them who is there’ and it makes sense, so it’s correct. ‘Whose shoes are those?’ – if I said ‘Who is shoes are those?’ that does not make sense at all! You know it should therefore be ‘whose’.
Whew! Who’s the master of subject pronouns? You are!