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The sad demise of which

November 13, 2019


I have just received a letter from my optician, which states: ‘It is very important for patients over 45 to have regular eye examinations, this allows us to not only check for sight problems but also acts as a general health check’. Very thoughtful of them. I must certainly make an appointment. But doesn’t that comma splice make you wince? (A comma splice, for those not familiar with the term, is when a comma is used as a linking device to splice together two clauses that are grammatically independent of each other.) Either the comma should be replaced by a full stop or semi-colon, or a linking word like as or because should go before this. Or replace this with which.

Thinking about the matter a little further, I think the underlying problem here is not the comma splice itself. That is in this case merely a symptom of the demise of which. People have stopped using it. They use this instead and think it does the same job. I am seeing which less and less often in the essays I mark; and my guess is that those who do still use it are of a similar age to me. For younger generations, which has come to sound fussy, prissy and old-fashioned. And this moves into the vacant space, gradually changing from a demonstrative to a relative pronoun.

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Preserved Killick in the Patrick O’Brian Jack Aubrey novels started most sentences with “which”. Does that count?

    • I have never read any Patrick O’Brian novels. Perhaps I should. I’ve just googled him and they sound fun. But they were written before the demise of ‘which’.

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    Well worth a look. They are strangely hypnotic even when nothing much is happening. Aubrey and Maturin are classic characters.

  3. John Dunn permalink

    I hadn’t noticed the loss of ‘which’, but I wonder if it is part of a more general tendency to avoid constructing complex sentences. In the absence of ‘which ‘ or a conjunction here I would have used a colon (rather than a semi-colon), since the second part of the sentence explains the first. And while we are in complaining mode, perhaps we should note that ‘not only’ is misplaced: it should come before ‘allows’.

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