Q: I’m curious about this use of “which” in a US Supreme Court opinion from April 30, 1934: “Upon the submission of the cause the appellant made a motion to amend its assignments of error, which motion is now granted.” I assume “which” is used here to avoid ambiguity. Why isn’t it used that way now?
A: Yes, the relative adjective “which” is being used in that opinion (Dayton Power & Light Co. v. Public Utilities Commission of Ohio) to avoid ambiguity. Although the usage isn’t seen much these days, it does show up at times.
This more recent example is from an April 7, 2020, resolution by the Louisville, CO, City Council on holding electronic hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic under rules set by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment:
“Whereas, also on March 25, 2020, the CDPHE issued an Amended Public Health Order 20-24 Implementing Stay at Home Requirements, which Order has since been updated twice.”
The Oxford English Dictionary says “which” here is a “relative adjective, introducing a clause and modifying a noun referring to (and esp.) summing up the details of the antecedent in the preceding clause or sentence.”
The usage dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, when “which” (spelled huælc, huelc, hwilc, etc.) was originally part of a prepositional phase that modified a noun.
The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a forged writ composed in the 12th century that purports to be King Edward the Confessor’s recognition of gifts by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and Lady Godgifu (Godiva) to build a monastery in Coventry in the 11th century:
“For uræ Drihten on larspelle þuss cweþ, Gestrynaþ eow sylfum mid ælmesdædum madme hord on heofonan and wunnunge mid ænglum. For hwilcæ neodlicum þingan icc cyþe eow eallum þæt icc ann mid fulre unne þæt þa ilce gyfe þæt Leofric eorl 7 Godgyfu habbað gegiuen Criste.”
(“For our Lord says in the Gospel, ‘Enrich yourselves with almsgiving, gain a treasure in heaven and a home with the angels.’ For which matter, it is necessary that I make known to you all that I confirm with full consent the gift that Earl Leofric and Godiva have given to Christ in the same way.”)
The OED’s first citation for “which” used similarly by itself, as in your example, is from Confessio Amantis (The Lover’s Confession, circa 1390), a Middle English poem by John Gower. Here’s an expanded version:
“So sit it wel to taken hiede / And forto loke on every side, / Er that thou falle in homicide, / Which Senne is now so general, / That it welnyh stant overal, / In holi cherche and elles where.”
(“So it is well to take heed / And to look on every side, / Ere that you descend to homicide, / Which sin is now so general, / That it well nigh stands over all, / In holy church and elsewhere.”)
We don’t know why this usage is seen less often now, but English speakers have other ways to clarify a sentence like the one you cite.
Here, for example, is a somewhat less lawyerly phrasing of that Supreme Court opinion: “The motion of the appellant to amend its assignments of error is now granted.”