Source: p 377, A Treatise on Astronomy, by Sir John F. W. Herschel

... But between that remotest orb and the nearest star there is a gulf fixed, to whose extent no observations yet made have enabled us to assign any distinct approximation, or to name any distance, however immense, which it may not, for any thing we can tell, surpass.

My struggle with 'to the extent of which', inspired me to Google some examples of 'to whose extent' as practice. This is how I encountered this quote, not because I wish to learn astronomy.

Here, I guessed: to whose extent  =  to the extent of which.

What`s the antecedent of whose? What does to whose mean here? Please explain WITHOUT rewriting or paraphrasing the sentence.

  • This is extremely complex and I'd argue that, without specific scientific knowledge, many native speakers would have trouble parsing it... particularly as the terminology is a bit stale.
    – Catija
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 5:27
  • The verb-phrase is "assign any distinct approximation". We assign things "to" things. So the meaning is "no observations have allowed us to assign an approximate distance to the extent (i.e. to the stretch of space, to the "gulf") between that remotest orb and the nearest star. "Extent" here does not mean "degree". It is apposite "gulf".
    – TimR
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 12:09
  • @Catija Please don't mind the rollback; I purposely spaced the sentence as I did, to help parse it. Is this fine?
    – user8712
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 15:18
  • 3
    The spacing makes it harder to read, which makes it harder to parse. I don't think it helps with anything, unfortunately.
    – user230
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 23:09

3 Answers 3


Part 1 of 2: Answer on 'to whose extent'

"Whose" is a way of referring to an item that belongs to someone else. Generally, in modern English, we use "which" to describe items that belong to a thing.

Belonging to or associated with which person

It would be appropriate to rewrite this as "to which extent" since there are no people involved in this statement.

The quote's use of extent means the following, a little different than the idiomatic attribution you're giving it:

The area covered by something

In the case of the idiom, it usually means:

The amount to which something is or is believed to be the case

Could you rewrite to whose extent as "the extent of which"?

Yes... but it still wouldn't mean quite the same thing as what you're talking about in your other question (to which you linked, in your OP above).
There (and NOT here), in the extent of which, "extent" is figurative, it's a degree.
Here, in this question's quote, "extent" is a literal extent, an expanse of open space that is (in our era) measurable through scientific means.

But you can't rewrite it as "to the extent of which". Why not?
If extent is "degree" the way it is in the idiomatic phrase, then it is fine to say:

To the degree of which...

But in this case, extent is a measurable distance (the extent of the oceans).

There's a big hole in my yard, to the area of which is five feet.

This makes no sense.

There's a big hole in my yard, the area of which is five feet.

I think you can also see here how "area" refers to the "hole".

Similarly, "extent" refers to "gulf".

Part 2 of 2: Gloss on the quote's meaning

What they are talking about in this section is the failure of science at the time to be able to assign an exact measurement to the distance between some unnamed "remotest orb" and the nearest star (excluding the sun). Let's look at the previous sentence:

We have attained, by delicate observations and refined combinations of theoretical reasoning, to a correct estimate, first, of the dimensions of the earth; then, taking that as a base, to a knowledge of those of its orbit about the sun; and again, by taking our stand, as it were, on the opposite borders of the circumference of this orbit, we have extended our measurements to the extreme verge of our own system, and by the aid of what we know of the excursions of comets, have felt our way, as it were, a step or two beyond the orbit of the remotest known planet.

He's showing how, through scientific reasoning, they've taken step-by step movements toward understanding the size of our solar system.

  1. the dimensions of the Earth
  2. the dimensions of the Earth's orbit around the sun
  3. the size of the solar system.

Then comes your sentence:

But between that remotest orb

(the remotest known planet)

and the nearest star

(excluding the sun)

there is a gulf fixed, to whose extent no observations yet made...

A gulf is:

A deep ravine, chasm, or abyss.

These are specific geographic terms but the word is used in this case to refer to the vast empty space between two visible spacial bodies (the planet and the star).

Fixed means the below but can also imply "exists"

Fastened securely in position

So, here's what he means:

The size or scale of the space that exists between our most distant planet and the closest star is unknown and they don't even have a close guess.

He then goes on to explain that the tools of their era were not sufficiently exact to allow those numbers to be determined.

This is a very old text on astronomy and I don't know that it's a good source of information if you're just trying to learn astronomy... and even if you're only reading it for interest, having some basic knowledge of astronomy might be a good idea. Much of what we know about astronomy is much more recently discovered than this essay was written... for example, our eighth planet, Neptune was discovered in 1846! So he didn't know it existed... his "remotest orb" may have been Uranus, though Ceres (currently a dwarf planet) was considered the 8th planet from 1801 to 1851, so he could mean Ceres.

  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit I hope the addition of the top section helps to some degree.
    – Catija
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 16:29
  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit I already explain how it's different when I explain "extent" I've edited that section, as well.
    – Catija
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 19:05
  • Thank you profusely again for your continued devotion. I hope you don't mind the (minor) edits, which only amended a few bits. I mainly united your explanations of 'extent' at the top, because it previously appeared separately in two parts.
    – user8712
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 20:16
  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit Sure. Not an issue.
    – Catija
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 20:19
  • Sorry to protract this, but in my proposed "the extent of which", how's extent figurative? If extent is literal in 'whose extent', then changing 'whose extent' to "the extent of which" preserves the literal meaning of extent?
    – user8712
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 20:19

The antecedent is gulf.

And yes, you could think of "to whose extent as "to the extent of which".

However, "extent" is the object of what comes after, namely

No observations yet made have allowed us to assign any approximation [to the extent].


The word "whose" can act as a possessive form of the word "which", which is the context it carries in your example. The antecedent is "gulf".

You can determine this on your own by remembering that the word "whose" can act as a possessive of either a person or a thing. When you encounter it, then, ask yourself to who or what the object of possession belongs. In the case of the question, "extent" is a property of "gulf" from the perspective of the writer, so "gulf" is the antecedent.

Your particular example is especially challenging because the word "extent" might not generally be regarded as a possession of something like a gulf. The author of your example quotation is taking some poetic license with his language, which can make it difficult to follow semantically.

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