Poor pitiful which

« previous post | next post »

I'm used to the which-hunters' ill-informed prejudice against the traditional role of which in integrated relative clauses (discussed here, here, here, here, here, and in many other LL posts over the years). But I now learn that some extremists have targeted which even in its grammatical ghetto of supplementary relative clauses, ("Why are some summatives labeled 'vague'?", 5/21/2008; "More theory trumping practice", 5/22/2008.)

The endangered examples of supplementary which are those that have a "summative" function, "understood as referring to some situation or proposition alluded to in the preceding discourse". A simple example: "Neptune opposes Apollo, which implies that things moist and dry are in continual discord."

That example, which is classical as well as simple, comes from Alexander Pope's side note on verse 91 of book VIII of the Iliad:

With what Art does the Poet engage the Gods in this Conflict! Neptune opposes Apollo , which implies that Things moist and dry are in continual Discord: Pallas fights with Mars , which signifies that Rashness and Wisdom always disagree: Juno is against Diana , that is, nothing more differs from a Marriage State, than Celibacy: Vulcan engages Xanthus , that is, Fire and Water are in perpetual Variance. Thus we have a fine Allegory conceal'd under the Veil of excellent Poetry, and the Reader receives a double Satisfaction at the same time from beautiful Verses, and an instructive Moral.

It's easy to find other examples of summative which in the works of great writers over the centuries. Shakespeare was so fond of it that in the first three plays I checked, I found a summative which in Act I, Scene 1. Thus Henry IV, part 1:

This is his Vnckles teaching. This is Worcester
Maleuolent to you in all Aspects:
Which makes him prune himselfe, and bristle vp
The crest of Youth against your Dignity.

And A Midsummer-Night's Dream:

Be it so she will not here before your Grace
Consent to marry with Demetrius,
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

And As You Like It:

Yet he's gentle; never schooled, and yet learned; full of noble device; of all sorts enchantingly beloved; and indeed so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprised: but it shall not be so long; this wrestler shall clear all: nothing remains but that I kindle the boy thither; which now I'll go about.

We expect that a writer of complicated prose like Laurence Sterne will use summative which, like this example from Tristram Shandy:

Yorick was this parson's name, and, what is very remarkable in it, (as appears from a most antient account of the family, wrote upon strong vellum, and now in perfect preservation) it had been exactly so spelt for near,—I was within an ace of saying nine hundred years;—but I would not shake my credit in telling an improbable truth, however indisputable in itself;—and therefore I shall content myself with only saying,—It had been exactly so spelt, without the least variation or transposition of a single letter, for I do not know how long; which is more than I would venture to say of one half of the best surnames in the kingdom; which, in a course of years, have generally undergone as many chops and changes as their owners. —Has this been owing to the pride, or to the shame of the respective proprietors? —In honest truth, I think, sometimes to the one, and sometimes to the other, just as the temptation has wrought. But a villainous affair it is, and will one day so blend and confound us all together, that no one shall be able to stand up and swear, "That his own great grand father was the man who did either this or that."

But we also find it in Emily Dickinson ("To Sue"):

Today is far from childhood,
But up and down the hills
I held her hand the tighter,
shortened all the miles.

And in W.H. Auden ("Plains")

… in brilliant moonlight, I have lost my way
And stood without a shadow at the dead centre
Of an abominable desolation,
Like Tarquin ravished by his post-coital sadness.

goes to show I've reason to be frightened

Not of plains, of course, but of me.

And W.S. Gilbert (The Grand Duke):

In the period Socratic every dining-room was Attic
(Which suggests an architecture of a topsy-turvy kind),

And Thomas Merton:

But (woe to us with dressed-up souls)
This demands deep study
Learning to unlearn,
Confinement in the freedom of that convent
Whose perpetual nuns (the poets say) are the stars
And flowers the Magdalens convinced for a day
But where, in the end, the stars are stars only
And flowers are flowers only
Which is why we call them
Stars and flowers.

Which is a good reason to follow Geoff Pullum's advice: "Don't put up with usage abuse". You may not care about summative which, but some day, they'll come for you.


  1. Jay Livingston said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 8:08 am

    For me, it's not about what is grammatically correct; it's about clarity. My high school English teacher would have called this which a "non-reference pronoun." (She wasn't a linguist; neither am I.) It's the same objection she would have made if the authors quoted had stopped before the which and started a new clause with that or this. "I took the road less traveled by and that has made all the difference." Miss
    Elliott would have made an exception for poetry, but her point was that your expository writing will be clearer if you can specify a noun that the pronoun refers to.

    "what do you mean by this at the beginning of this sentence?" she might ask. "Oh, you know," I'd respond, "all this stuff that I said in the previous paragraph," realizing how vague and imprecise my this was. What it stood for might have been clear to me, but it would probably not be so clear to anyone else reading what I'd written. And calling it "summative" wouldn't have made it any clearer.

  2. Karen said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    But it stands for the whole concept – which could stand in a Noun Phrase's place in a sentence, after all. How is it unclear to say "My 'which' refers to the previous sentence."? Why is that less clear than being able to point to particular noun? Substituting a "this fact" isn't clearer: the textual cohesion is precisely the same.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 9:07 am

    @Jay Livingston: With respect, you and Miss Elliott both are engaging in entirely empty rhetoric. There's nothing especially unclear about the interpretation of which in any of the examples that I cited. What it stood for was perfectly clear to Shakespeare and Pope and Sterne and Dickinson and the rest of them, and it's perfectly clear to me, and I'll bet it was perfectly clear to Miss Elliott, her allegiance to an ill-founded theory aside.

    I see no evidence that things are somehow different for poetry in this particular respect. We can easily find tens of thousands of examples of summative which in the expository prose of the best writers.

    As Arnold explained, the opinions of the Miss Elliotts of the world in such matters are not based on any empirical evidence — "we compared 100 excellent writers with 100 bad ones, and discovered that the bad writers used summative which and the good ones didn't"; or "a psychological study showed that inferences requiring reference resolution are faster and more accurate in cases using phrases like 'this fact' or 'a fact that' instead of 'this' or 'which'." Nor are these opinions based on any coherent grammatical analysis. Rather, these prescriptions seem to be arbitrary cultural markers, what we might call grammatical gang colors, except that the crips and the bloods don't pretend that the choice of blue or red is motivated by considerations of visibility or intrinsic attractiveness.

  4. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 10:46 am

    To Mark Liberman: it's not just some grammatical extremists; the prohibition again summative "which" is in almost every handbook.

    I've posted on one part of the story, the appeal to theory. The other big part is the idea that if a construction can in principle introduce an ambiguity, and if it sometimes results in unclarity in the writing of unpracticed writers, then it should be banned. This is craziness, as I pointed out in "Another Sign of the Apocalypse" (#3365 in LL Classic) — where it leads to the absurd advice Avoid Pronoun. I'm working on a posting.

  5. Mark Young said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 11:38 am

    In the period Socratic every dining-room was Attic
    (Which suggests an architecture of a topsy-turvy kind),

    Hmm…. Is this a summative which? Is it the fact that every dining-room was Attic that suggests the topsy-turviness of the architecture, or is it merely the word "Attic" that's doing so (in context)? I'm afraid I do find this example too vague — the others were fine, tho.

  6. Z. D. Smith said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 11:38 am

    I must confess this proscription against summative 'which' is entirely new to me. I guess I shouldn't be surprised; it wouldn't be the first time that style guide orthodoxy has happily contradicted the majority of writing, everywhere.

    I mean, sure, I had several teachers who adminished that I shouldn't start a sentence with 'Which', referring to the previous sentence, and there's a certain sense in that; it's not a sense of clarity, of course, because it's stupidly obvious what a 'which' that starts a sentence might be referring to when immediately following a declarative statement. But it does come off a little clumsy, and a little irrhythmic.

    If i could digress for a second, I think that the prescriptivists would have an easier time of it if they allowed aesthetic concerns into their repertoire of justifications. It's totally valid, I think, to argue that a certain construction makes rough the general meter of the English language; more valid than to argue it's unclear, when the fact that you can comment on its failures indicates, nearly by necessity, that is IS clear.

    But in any case, if I had actually ever been told to avoid the summative which, and if I had ever, in my benighted youth, undertaken to follow that advice, I'm sure I would very quickly go insane from the effort of curbing such a regular and natural motion.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 11:44 am

    @Arnold: It's clear that you're right, but this particular piece of craziness was news to me. And I'm amazed that so many intelligent people — ordinary citizens as well as grammar mavens — have drunk this batch of koolaid.

    The especially-crazy thing is that abstract nouns used for similar functions are just about as likely to be ambiguous, and arguably more likely to be distracting when improperly used (e.g. if an unskillful writer uses "question" to refer to a fact, or "idea" to a debate).

    Just for completeness, since Jay's high-school English teacher might make an exception for poetry, I'll post a set of examples of summative pronouns in expository prose.

    [Update: it's here.]

  8. john riemann soong said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

    "Miss Elliott would have made an exception for poetry, "

    Of course! You can suspend the rules of grammar in poetry! Grammar is a set of all the technical rules for language that can temporarily not apply for the sake of art! The same idea why it was acceptable for Mark Twain to suspend the rules of grammar when describin the speech of them coloured folk, because grammar isn't a set of mental and conceptual principles regulating the comprehension and production of how language elements are organised, why no! It's a bunch of consequentialist guidelines that can be suspended when the rules don't fit the situation!

    "But it does come off a little clumsy, and a little irrhythmic."

    Why not? People do that all the time in spoken speech, even in rather formal speech like say, forensics. ("This brings me back to my first point…")

  9. Lance Nathan said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 2:08 am

    Mark Young: In the Gilbert quote, there's nothing topsy-turvy about Attic architecture. It being classical Greek, the effect would be quite the opposite, i.e. composed, with everything in place. (That's even clearer in the full song–see http://math.boisestate.edu/gas/grand_duke/web_op/gd14.html –in which Ludwig is, at least through that point, praising classical Greek aesthetics.) What's topsy-turvy is not Attic archtecture, but the idea of the dining room being the (lowercase-)attic, i.e. the top of the house. So I think that "which" is very clearly summative.

  10. Z. D. Smith said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 9:42 pm

    john riemann soong: If I wasn't being clear, I was referring to a pretty narrow use-case of using a relative pronoun as the first word in a sentence to refer to a fact or idea in the previous sentence. eg: "Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays, including a couple good ones. That became very important later in life, when he was constantly mobbed by adoring fans."

  11. john riemann soong said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 10:11 pm

    Ah, I do see now — but that seems more like a caution for writing as opposed to natural speech, doesn't it? I'm not sure if it's simply because what we expect when using the "formal writing register," but in writing we expect connected thoughts to merge into one sentence if it still sounds elegant, though we would not make the same requirement in speech.

  12. marie-lucie said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 6:03 pm

    Z.D. Smith, are you understanding the "that" in your second sentence as a relative pronoun equivalent to "which"? Isn't it the demonstrative pronoun "that", the partner of "this", which would also be appropriate in the sentence?

RSS feed for comments on this post