Is it entirely correct to use the adjective 'whose' when the grammatical subject is not a person but a thing? For instance,

The first poem whose publication he ever sanctioned

  • I apologise, albeit I looked for similar entries and found none. – Carlos Jan 31 '18 at 1:30

It's not “wrong” but there are other ways to say it, e.g. The first poem that he sanctioned for publication.

Now, for who and which there's definitely a strong division for animate / inanimate.

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It is accepted usage, though there have been times when a subset of grammarians have advised against it, and some linguists still feel ambiguous about it. There is an excellent article that describes how the situation with possessive pronouns evolved over time.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage ... says... that “the notion that whose may not properly be used of anything except persons is a superstition; it has been used by innumerable standard authors from Wycliffe to Updike, and is entirely standard as an alternative to of which the in all varieties of discourse.” Bryan A. Garner, in his Garner’s Modern American Usage, says somewhat more equivocally, “Whose may usefully refer to things ⟨an idea whose time has come⟩. This use of whose, formerly decried by some 19th-century grammarians and their predecessors, is often an inescapable way of avoiding clumsiness.” He ranks it a 5—“universally adopted except for a few eccentrics”—but his tone leaves one feeling as if he thinks it the lesser of two evils.

However, although Merriam-Webster, as noted above, considers opposition to inanimate-whose a superstition, its own usage notes state,

In regard to of which: it seems a good choice when a formal or literary tone is desired.

Of possible interest: a similar question on the ELU Stackexchange.

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  • Where did you read this? Certainly not in one of the upvoted answers to the linked question. I wholeheartedly disagree with the statement that it's usually avoided (–1 until corroborated). – user3395 Jan 30 '18 at 18:57
  • @userr2684291 So, since Merriam-Webster corroborates avoidance (though you could be a stickler and argue around whether "usually" was justified), will you reverse your downvote? My original answer did say that it wasn't incorrect. – tenebris2020 Jan 30 '18 at 20:00
  • Yes, I'm going to be a nitpicker and repeat that "usually avoided" wasn't justified, but I'll revert my downvote regardless because you did some research. However, I would suggest reading the mentioned entry in the MWDEU (you can find it online; it's a great book on matters such as these), because it appears you're convinced that just because some random prescriptivists can't take their eyes off the who in whose (and consequently derive arbitrary rules regarding it), its use is somehow seen as questionable. – user3395 Jan 30 '18 at 20:35
  • @userr2684291 M-W does show a preference for "of which" for when "a formal or literary tone is desired" (2nd link in current version of my post) & helpfully provides examples of how to rephrase sentences to avoid "whose" or "of which" altogether. I'm not "convinced of questionability", I'm mindful of the ambiguity. Please don't try to read my mind over the internet—I've been known to disregard prescr. rules when they don't work for reasons of either elegance or "deeper sense". However, there's the fact that M-W does try to help people avoid this rather than says "chill and use 'whose' always." – tenebris2020 Jan 30 '18 at 20:49

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