The Grammarphobia Blog

A which’s brew

Q: How do you feel about using the relative pronoun “which” to modify an entire clause? Here’s an example: “We couldn’t find the answer on the Web, which always drives us nuts.” I often see this use of “which,” but it does not seem very elegant and it may sometimes be ambiguous. In the preceding example, what drives us nuts – the Web itself or the fact that we couldn’t find the answer on the Web?

A: Traditionally, the relative pronoun “which” modified a specific thing. Example: “We asked him to split the cost, which was considerable.” Obviously, the “which” clause (“which was considerable”) refers to the cost.

In the old days, the use of a “which” clause to modify an entire preceding clause (“We asked him to split the cost, which seemed only fair”), or even an entire preceding sentence (“We asked him to split the cost. Which he did.”), was regarded as a grammatical mistake by many – but not all – authorities.

In the last 75 years or so, however, the tide has turned, and this construction is so well established that it’s considered acceptable by every contemporary usage guide I’ve checked. But you’ve put your finger on the problem.

The trick is to make it crystal clear what the “which” refers to. In the following example, it’s hard to tell what “which” is supposed to modify: “We asked him to split the cost, which he thought was outrageous.” What did he think was outrageous: the cost, or his being asked to split it?

My feeling is that this more relaxed usage has a lot going for it and allows us a greater range of expression – as long as it’s used clearly and elegantly.

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