Who’s or Whose? Correct Use of the Apostrophe

Who’s is the contraction of “who is” or “who has,” while whose is the possessive form of who and indicates association or ownership.

  • Contraction: Who’s calling? (who is)
  • Contraction: Who’s got a phone? (who has)
  • Possessive: Whose umbrella is that?

Since who’s and whose are pronounced the same way, they are often confused in writing. Here’s a simple trick: if you can use “who is” or “who has” instead and still have the sentence make sense, use who’s; otherwise, use whose.

  • Who’s/Whose that?
    Can be replaced by who is.
  • Who’s/Whose been sitting in my chair?
    Can be replaced by who has.
  • Who’s/Whose bag is this?
    Cannot be replaced by who is or who has.

Apostrophe in contraction vs. possessive

An apostrophe indicates omitted letters in a contraction. Thus, who and is combine to form who’s, with an apostrophe replacing the omitted letter i. Similarly, who and has also combine and contract to who’s. (The sentence makes it clear whether who’s means who is or who has.)

  • Who’s your favorite writer? (who is)
  • Who’s ready to open the presents? (who is)
  • Look who’s talking. (who is)
  • I wonder who’s calling at this hour. (who is)
  • Who’s been opening all the presents? (who has)
  • Only someone who’s read the book will know what I mean. (who has)

In contrast, possessive pronouns like whose never need an apostrophe. We use the word whose (without an apostrophe) to ask or speak about possession or association.

  • Whose book is this?
    What you need here is the possessive of who and not a contraction: use whose instead of who’s.
  • Whose team is ready?
  • Whose problem is that?
  • Do you know someone whose car I can borrow?
  • The woman whose car you borrowed is here.
  • Whose present should we open first?
  • Whose turn is it to do the dishes?
  • I wonder whose phone this is.
  • She is someone whose opinion I value.
  • This is the poor little girl whose pencils were eaten by a gnome.
  • These are all the phones whose screens are broken.

Apostrophe use works this way not just with who’s/whose but across all contractions and possessive pronouns. For example, it’s (with an apostrophe) is the contraction of it is or it has; its (without an apostrophe) is a possessive. Similarly, you’re is the contracted form of you are, while your and yours are possessives.

  • Contraction: It’s raining. (it is)
    Contraction: It’s been a hard winter for everyone. (it has)
    Possessive: Has your wooden table lost its shine?
  • Contraction: You’re here. (you are)
    Possessive: Your umbrella is broken.
    Possessive: Is this umbrella yours?

An apostrophe does indicate possession but only with nouns (e.g., the cat’s whiskers, my parents’ home), which is why apostrophe use can get confusing. Just remember that an apostrophe is never needed to form the possessive of a pronoun. Any pronoun word that contains an apostrophe is a contraction (like who’s, it’s, you’re) and not a possessive (whose, its, yours).

Who’s who or whose who?

The phrase who’s who is a contraction of “who is who.” It refers to a directory of information about notable people, or to the notable people themselves, the elite. As such, it tells you who is who, not who belongs to whom, which is why the correct phrase is who’s who, not whose who.

  • Her client list reads like a who’s who of Hollywood.
  • The who’s who of the music industry were at the gala.

Examples from literature

Here are some examples of who’s and whose used correctly in published writing. Note how who’s is used as a contraction and whose as a possessive.

  • Contraction: They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying.
    Neil Gaiman, The Kindly Ones (1993)
  • Contraction: Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong.
    Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997)
  • Possessive: Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all—the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved.
    Mark Twain, Moments with Mark Twain (1920)
  • Possessive: She was the tree that grew in the centre of their lives and in whose shade they lived.
    Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day (1980)
  • Possessive: This was an attractive room, spacious and well designed, but it had the comfortably shabby air of a place whose inhabitants had long ago stopped seeing it.
    Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

Quick Quiz

Which of these contains a contraction?
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Which of these contains a possessive?
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Which is correct?
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Which is correct?
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Which is correct?
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