Which (and Other Relative Pronouns))
"Emma? A long webpage on a single, boring word?"
"Only when it's a relative pronoun." I know, that just makes it worse.
"Do you think anyone is going to want to read this?"
"Maybe? It's possible?" Probably not. "But it's important," I whine.
"I admit, it will show off your ability to over-analyze anything."
"Thank you." Wait -- was that really a compliment?
English GrammarWhat you already know:
#1. They're playing songs, which I like.Which and that are relative pronouns. Attempts to verbalize the distinction differ, but there is good consensus on what the difference actually is. Roughly, which introduces additional information, information that is not needed to properly understand the first phrase. In contrast, that contains information importantly modififying the first phrase; the first phrase will not be properly understood by itself.
The grammar rule: Which is preceded by a comma. (That rule could be reversed -- to use which when a comma is used, A RULE THAT MIGHT HAVE MADE MORE SENSE. However, that requires a sensible definition of the comma, which there isn't. So FINE, they can say that rule however they want.)
To me, proper English Grammar is great for communicating ideas. I use it in my nonfiction. I take delight in being able to add extra information using which, that works really well.
Fiction is different.
Quirky Grammar FactsThis is the background information we need before actually talking about which in writing. 1. That can be a simple pronoun; which cannot.
They're playing songs. I like that.In other words, which is always at (or very near) the start of the phrase it introduces.
2. which can replace the object of a preposition. that cannot.
I like the car, which I am driving in.
3. Another case, this time that works and which doesn't.
#1. I know that I can do it.4. Is the distinction between which and that important? It gets ignored a lot. First, the word who can function exactly like that or which, except that it covers both cases. Ambiguity? No one is worried. Perhaps the comma makes the distinction.
I like that man, who is wearing red.Also, when an adjective is in front of a noun, no one marks whether it's restrictive or not. Usually there is no problem, but this is a possible ambiguity:
Pass me the dark chocolate.Does she want the chocolate and it happens to be dark? Or are there two chocolates and she wants the dark one?
5. Distorted Word Order. The direct object can start the sentence. It's an unusual word order.
Chocolate I like.Well, it's unusual except for relative pronouns:
He gave me chocolate, which I like.Is there any bottom line here? I think so. The concept of pronoun makes sense. The concept of relative pronoun is strange. And complicated. If you have been practicing it since you were two, you have forgotten how strange it is. When grammarians list the parts of speech, they don't list relative pronouns. Odd. When they talk about relative pronouns, they make it sound like which and that can play the same role, which in fact often they cannot.
Writers!Some writers are happy to use which as a relative pronoun. Many are not. Kill the Boy Band has a very modern feel for grammar. In a page and a half (188-189), I found 4 sentences that could have contained which but did not, and meanwhile no usages of which as a relative pronoun until four pages later.
There are a variety of ways of avoiding which. The first is to use that, even which which (apparently) is the correct word.
But he died under mysterious circumstances that we were directly responsible for.Here is Evanovich (Top Secret Twenty-One, page 1) using that when which would have been more accurate:
I was wearing a red dresss that was too tight ... And I was wearing an earbud that connected me to ...It is well-known that modern usage allows leaving out that as a relative pronoun. Apparently, modern usage also allows leaving out which.
Their open mouths, [which were] silent from where I was sitting...One sentence can be split into two:
#. He showed me the screen, which was the signature royal-blue background of Isabel's site.
Reversing the Meaning?
1. He gave me roses. That made me happy.Most authors would combine those into two sentences; with a comma instead of a period, #1 would be a harsh comma splice, so they would use which.
He gave me roses, which made me happy.Actually, they would probably avoid which:
He gave me roses, making me happy.But anyway. As two sentences, #2 is grammatically incorrect. But suppose you were willing to start a sentence with which.
For me, I use which when something is not a second fact, but instead modifies what was just said, in a way that probably changes it.
But it makes me happy. Which is so stupid, why should such a small thing make me happy?So I start a sentence with that, as a pronoun, to signal another fact is coming; I use which to show that a change is being made in what was just said. That in a way reverses the normal meaning.
Or it's honest. The relative pronoun which suggests that the information to follow isn't very important. If information isn't important, why say it at all? If it is important, why suggest that it is? That leaves using which for information that is added to something but very important to that something.