Q: I’m puzzled by this use of “which” on Yahoo Finance: “Oceana Group has seen a flattish net income growth over the past five years, which is not saying much.” Is “which” correct? If so, what is it doing here?
A: The word “which” here is a relative pronoun that introduces a clause referring to an earlier statement. The usage dates back to the 14th century and is standard English.
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “which” here is “introducing a clause describing or stating something additional about the antecedent.”
The OED adds that the sense of the main clause is “complete without the relative clause,” so “which” is “sometimes equivalent to ‘and he, she, it, they, etc.’ ”
The earliest Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is from a Middle English translation of a Middle French treatise on morality:
“He [þe messagyer of dyaþe] ansuereþ, he ne may naȝt zigge bote yef þer by heȝliche clom. Huych y-graunted, þus he begynþ. Ich am drede and beþenchinge of dyaþe.”
(“He [the messenger of death] answers, he may not say anything until he climbs higher. Which is granted. Thus he begins: ‘I am dread and a reminder of death’ ”).
The passage, written in a Kentish dialect of Middle English, is from Ayenbyte of Inwyt (Remorse of Conscience), 1340, by Dan Michel of Northgate, a Benedictine monk. (“Dan” was an honorific for a monk in medieval England.)
Here’s one of many examples we’ve found in Shakespeare: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven” (All’s Well That Ends Well, written in the late 1500s or early 1600s).
And the OED cites this modern modern example from James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance: “While I was talking I looked him in the eyes, which was surprisingly easy to do.”
Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult include this sense of “which.” Here, for example, is an excerpt from an American Heritage usage note:
“The relative pronoun which can sometimes refer to a clause or sentence, as opposed to a noun phrase: She ignored him, which proved to be unwise. They swept the council elections, which could never have happened under the old rules.”
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that some language writers once criticized the usage, arguing that “which” should refer to a specific antecedent. But M-W adds that “almost all modern commentators find it acceptable.”
In fact, as shown in one of the examples above, this “which” sometimes introduces a new sentence rather than a clause.
Here’s Pat’s nontechnical explanation of the usage in Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English:
Sometimes we start a statement with which to make a comment on the previous sentence. Which is perfectly all right, if the ideas are connected.
Orson saw himself as larger than life. Which was true, after he gained all that weight.
But which is often used in casual conversation to introduce an afterthought that comes out of nowhere.
He was a great Othello. Which reminds me, where’s that twenty dollars you borrowed?
Conversation is one thing and written English is another. When you write a sentence starting with which, make sure there’s a connection. Which is a rule that bears repeating!
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