Are any of those things even things?

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Annie Wagner, in an unusual tribute to the late David Foster Wallace, asked about "a grammatical quirk the man just couldn’t quit". She quotes from a review she wrote several years ago:

Everything is the first volume in the “Great Discoveries” series, through which the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, intends to “bring new voices to the telling of stories of scientific achievement.” Which goal, as DFW’s habitual syntax would have it, is somewhat suspicious.

When she looks for one of DFW's own uses of this signature construction, she finds it "within the first 600 words of [his] Rolling Stone John McCain story":

In October of ‘67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi.

Ms. Wagner can recognize this construction when she sees it, but she doesn't know what to call it:

I never had a class in grammar as a kid, which neglect almost certainly condemned me to a life spent obsessing over the subject. So, my question for grammarians and those with access to Ask a Librarian: What do you call this construction? An adjectival dependent pronoun followed by—err, I’m getting lost here—a relative clause? Are any of those things even things? Is my “which neglect” proper above, or do you have to have some version of “neglect” in the original sentence?

I’m confused. And I’m really sad that David Foster Wallace isn’t around to answer my question.

Some of her readers were not amused:

Wow, tasteless AND pointless. Want to try this post again?

Amid the praise and blame, a few of her commenters offer answers. Hypatia, for examples, suggests that "It's just a relative clause that repeats the referent noun. It was all the rage three or four hundred years ago." This description of the construction is accurate but incomplete, and the suggested degree of antiquity strikes me as hyperbolic. And DaiBando invokes our help:

Send your question to one of these guys at If they deign to answer, you'll get a cogent, non-prescriptivist, real-life linguist's answer. It might even spark some dialog on the Language Log blog.

Unlike Annie Wagner, I'm a fan of DFW's writing, aside from the part that deals with language. But this is a blog about language, and so on the theory of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, I decided not to write anything on the occasion of his death. However, it seems appropriate to try to answer Ms. Wagner's question.

In the terminology of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, the which in DFW's "which <noun>" constructions is a relative determinative. The construction is discussed briefly in section 7.14 on p. 399, with the example "The meeting lasted until midnight, at which stage everyone was exhausted", and the observation that this kind of which "occurs in supplementary but not integrated relative clauses". (Those two types of relative clauses are more commonly known as "non-restrictive" and "restrictive", respectively.)

In contemporary English, everyone commonly uses which and what as interrogative determinatives: "Do you know what movies have been released this week?", "Which seat do you want?", etc. But which as a relative determinative is common these days only in construction with the head noun of a prepositional phrase, as in "in which case". This phrase occurs 2,462 times in this morning's Google News index. Similarly, the phrase {"at which stage"} occurs 436 times in the same index. (Some of the hits are interrogatives rather than relatives, of course.) There's a long tail of other, less common, relative-determinative PPs, e.g. "in which event", "for which purpose", etc.

The use of relative-determinative which outside of such PPs is relatively rare in most writing these days. Examples are indeed easier to find in earlier centuries, where the construction was often used as a linking device, even in popular writing:

Jane Barker, The Amours of Bosvil and Galesia, 1719: In these wild Thoughts I wander'd, 'till Weariness made me know my own Weakness and Incapacity of performing what Fury had inspir'd, and forc'd me to seek Repose under the first convenient Shade; where my flowing Tears mitigated the Heat of my Rage, washing away those extravagant Thoughts, and made me turn my Anger against myself, my wretched self, that woful and unworthy Thing, the Scorn of my Kinsman, Lover, Friend; which Thoughts I branch'd into many Reflections against myself, and him, and hard Fortune …

Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, 1840: After this, came the dinner and the letter writing, and some more talking, in the course of which Miss Haredale took occasion to charge upon Dolly certain flirtish and inconstant propensities, which accusations Dolly seemed to think very complimentary indeed, and to be mightily amused with.

I haven't done a systematic comparison, but I suspect that even in the 18th century, this device was just a bit pedantic, or at least was more heavily used in complex expository prose. Thus Henry Home, Lord Kames, uses it several times in his 1762 Elements of Criticism:

This reasoning will appear in a still clearer light, by opposing ideal presence to ideas raised by a cursory narrative; which ideas being faint, obscure, and imperfect, leave a vacuity in the mind, which solicits reflection.

Among the circumstances that terrify a condemned criminal, the short time he has to live is one; which time, by the influence of terror, is made to appear still shorter than it is in reality.

This is all that is necessary to be said here upon the natural connection between fear and the external signs of anger, which connection will be handled more particularly in the chapter of the external signs of emotions and passions.

In David Foster Wallace's collection of essays Consider the Lobster, which is 352 pages long, a quick search via amazon reveals that there are 254 pages where which occurs, and at least 19 examples where which is a relative determinative. This is roughly one in 13 of the uses of which, or one per 18.5 pages of the book as a whole. (The real rates are probably a bit higher, since the search shows me only a snippet from the first hit on each page.) A sample:

p. 21: …and an enormous serpentine line of fans with cameras and autographable memorabilia has formed at the Impressive booth, which line Ms. St. Claire appears for the moment to be ignoring …

p. 25: "… corresps. to discuss what for Max are the most pressing and relevant issues at this year's AVN Awards, which issues are the career, reputation, personal history, and overall life philosophy of Mr. …"

p. 27: … to go to hell for her insatiable sluttiness and how she felt about the sexual attentions of her piggish stepfather, which example then segues into an SS where four men dressed stepfatherishly in bowties and cardigans and all with plastic pig-snouts …"

(Five of the examples are in prepositional phrases, but they tend to be prepositional phrases like "in which latter films" and "all of which psychic travails"…)

In contrast, Lord Kames uses this construction only about once in 100 instances of which — in order to find the three examples shown above in Lord Kames' word, I had to search 60,000 words (roughly the first half of vol. I), where which occurs 330 times. (And in that selection, there was only one additional instance in a prepositional phrase.)

So it seems that Ms. Wagner's diagnosis is accurate — David Foster Wallace used this construction unusually often, even by 18th-century standards. He had every right to do so, as the construction is one that the grammar of English makes freely available for anyone to use.

But sometimes he changed his mind about it. In particular, his Rolling Stone piece on John McCain, which Ms. Wagner quotes as an example, was reprinted in Consider the Lobster. And in the version published in the book, several things have been changed, including the relative determinative in question. Here's Ms. Wagner's quote:

In October of ‘67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi.

And here's what he wrote in the book version of the same passage, on p. 163 of my copy:

In October of ‘67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and was flying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi, and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, and the ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies over Hanoi.

I deeply regret that he didn't change his mind about his own abrupt departure last Friday. Some decisions can't be edited for a new edition.

For Annie Wagner, a final note on terminology, from p. 54 of CGEL:

One important kind of dependent found only in the structure of NPs ["noun phrases"] is the determiner: the book, that car, my friend. The determiner serves to mark the NP as definite or indefinite. It is usually realized by a determinative or determinative phrase (the, a, too many, almost all) or a genitive NP (the minister's speech, one member's behaviour). Note then the distinction between determiner, a function in NP structure, and determinative, a lexical category. In traditional grammar, determinatives form a subclass of adjectives: we follow the usual practice in modern linguistics of treating them as a distinct primary category.

[And for the logical end-point of using which as a discourse connective, consider the "linking which" that Patrick O'Brian uses so effectively in the dialogue of his Aubrey-Maturin novels. ]



  1. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 9:41 am

    I wonder whether this originated as a Latinism (which would go with the fact it seems always to have been a feature of a more highfalutin style).

    It's common in Latin to put 'quis' rather than 'et is'and so on.
    A very common example is Cicero's verbal tic:

    Quae cum ita sint "now since these things are so" literally "which things as they are so".

    (Gildersleeve and Lodge section 610)

  2. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 9:45 am

    Aaargh, I meant, "qui" not "quis". The shame, the shame …
    Fortunately my old Latin master has long since passed to Avernus …

  3. Neal Goldfarb said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 9:46 am

    This construction is fairly common in legal writing.

  4. David Denison said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 10:04 am

    Mark has it about right, I reckon. I wrote about this construction in the Cambridge Hist of the Eng Lang, vol 4, saying that "Until the nineteenth century it was a little commoner and more varied in its usage", but that "[a]part from the occasional fixed phrase, it is doubtful whether it was ever anything but a literary usage" (Denison 1998: 277 ).

  5. Bill Walderman said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 11:39 am

    The relative determinative construction is perfectly natural in Latin, but sounds stilted and pendantic in English. Which is why, as Neal points out, lawyers use it a lot. (Disclosure: I'm one.)

  6. Alexi said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 11:45 am

    So, would it still be a relative determinative if he had written either of the two more usual options "A goal which" or simply "Which"?

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

    Alexi: So, would it still be a relative determinative if he had written either of the two more usual options "A goal which" or simply "Which"?

    No, in that case which would be a relative pronoun, because it's not the determiner of some head noun, it's serving itself in place of a noun.

  8. DaiBando said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

    Wow! A quote on Language Log! With hyperlink! I am honored. And still a nerd.

  9. Craig Russell said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 5:28 pm

    @ David Eddyshaw,

    The examples you give in Latin are somewhat different–these are cases where a relative pronoun is used in a new sentence when we might expect a 'regular' pronoun instead, but they don't incorporate the noun into the new sentence.

    How about from Caesar De Bello Gallico 6.13:

    Hi certo anni tempore in finibus Carnutum, *quae regio* totius Galliae media habetur, considunt in loco consecrato.

    They hold meetings in a consecrated place at a certain time of year in the territory of the Carnutes, *which region* is considered the middle of all Gaul.

    Here we might expect "regione quae…" "a region which is considered", but the noun 'region' (regio) has been incorporated into the relative clause and made to agree in case, number, and gender with the relative pronoun–just like in the English examples in the article.

    As you say, this is pretty common in Latin, and my suspicion has always been that the similar uses centuries ago in Dickens, etc. are attempting to replicate the Latin style.

  10. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    Good example. I was too lazy to find an exact parallel …

    Apropos (well, nearly apropos), Old English IIRC, like other Germanic languages, doesn't use interrogative-form pronouns as relatives; is this usage itself in later English due to French or Latin influence? (And how could you tell?)

  11. Jon Weinberg said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 6:21 pm

    D. Robert White, who knew lawyers even if he didn't know grammar, explained in his The Official Lawyer's Handbook:

    Take the following sentence that might appear in a brief relating to a "morals" prosecution: "Instead of building an ordinary hotel, the Board of Trustees decided to set up a brothel, which is the subject of the present action." This sentence would distress most lawyers, not because a sober person couldn't follow it, but because of the pronoun "which" (on the fifth line). The average lawyer would fear that a reader might be confused: does "which" refer to the brothel? To the Board of Trustees? To the decision to go for the brothel over the hotel? To the morality of it all? This mere hint of a possibility of confusion would torture the lawyer's conscience. The same craving for order that led him to color-code his notes in law school would lead him to re-write the above sentence as follows: "Instead of building an ordinary hotel, the Board of Trustees decided to set up a brothel, which brothel is the subject of the present action." The additional word adds nothing but length to the sentence. It distracts the reader by its unnatural placement. But a lawyer would always say which brothel, just as he would always say which contract, which court, or which anything else he could think of. The extra word satisfies his infancy based urge to keep things tidy. With it he'll sleep easier tonight, gurgling and cooing, at peace with the world.

  12. rone said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

    I'm not a lawyer, but i am a pedant, and i use it, too. I'm also fluent in Spanish, so sometimes Spanish habits seep into my English (and vice versa).

  13. CWV said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 11:10 pm

    My impression is that DFW used "which plus noun" every time the clause following "which" was not a description of the word immediately preceding "which." You could describe it as pedantic, but you could also describe it as a helpful way of preventing reader miscues.

    For example, if he had said: "an enormous serpentine line of fans with cameras and autographable memorabilia has formed at the Impressive booth, which Ms. St. Claire appears for the moment to be ignoring," I suspect that many readers would think — at least momentarily — that Ms. St. Claire was ignoring the booth, rather than the line.

    One explanation for why his prose uses this construction so often is that he tended to write unusually long sentences. Where most writers would just start a new sentence and repeat the noun or use a pronoun, DFW's style was to spin out clause after clause, often for a page or more at a time, with each building on and connecting to the clause that preceded it.

    But it may also be that he (though generally a non-prescriptivist) thought there was a rule stating that when you write "[word], which …" what comes after "which" describes [word] unless you specify otherwise. Has anyone else heard (or otherwise internalized) this rule?

  14. Mithridates said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 1:49 am

    It's understandable that you wouldn't want to criticize DFW's writings on language, but could you share which ones you find problematic?

    [(myl) See "Snoot? Bluck.", 11/8/2004. But see also "'That stuff' and the 'genre of blog'", 4/20/2006.]

  15. Lane said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 8:13 am

    I've read somewhere that DFW did not like the Rolling Stone edit of his piece. So in the two versions of the McCain-ejection story above, we can guess that the "which ejection" version was the one he wrote, and the "and the ejection" version was edited by someone else.

    I never liked the construction, and strongly disagree with "Tense Present", the (in)famous Harper's essay. But I loved his writing and almost felt like he was a friend. He'll be missed.

  16. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 20, 2008 @ 4:16 am

    Mark Liberman invites us to consider the "linking which" that Patrick O'Brian "uses so effectively in the dialogue of his Aubrey-Maturin novels". Well, let me state that I've read a fair bit of seventeenth and eighteenth century English and have never found anything in it that corresponds to this usage, which I suspect is an invention of Patrick O'Brian's.

  17. Maybe the abyss « Thing of words said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

    [...] — this tell-tale usage of the word "which" is by way of (not-so-oblique) tribute3 to David Foster Wallace, whose death last weekend (of [...]

  18. Anatoly said,

    September 27, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

    Russian has an exactly analogous construction (using a slightly archaic word for "which", каковой), also nowadays legalistic and little used in prose. French has "lequel" that's used in the same way, and seems to have been more popular in French than the "which" version in English; is it possible that both Russian and English learned this from French rather than Latin?

  19. Kerry Webb said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

    Re Simon Cauchi's comment about Patrick O'Brian inventing that "which" usage, a quick search on Google Books found a gardener speaking in this way in an 1852 issue of Punch.

  20. Annie Wagner said,

    October 4, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

    Wow. Thank you so much. I figured that since I was too lazy to forward to Language Log, my question would never be answered. Relative determinative! Onward!

  21. Bloix said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    Lawyers write the way they do (particularly in contracts, complaints, wills, and other documents that are binding and are not merely argumentative) because they know that their writing will be read unsympathetically, by readers who actively want to misunderstand. The lawyer is trying to create an impenetrable wall, which may not be as beautiful as a lattice trellis but is intended to serve an entirely different function.

  22. Edward Carney said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    @ Bloix
    "Lawyers write the way they do . . ."

    Nicely put. I've put this in my commonplace-book.

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