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And so I found myself asking this for some sort of reassurance, which question would be fielded by AskMefi's language nerds with bewildering rapidity
April 20, 2009 1:42 PM   Subscribe

In David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again he uses the word "which" in a way that I found unusual - a usage that is described under heading three here. I think I'm fairly well read, but I can't remember ever having seen this before. I've been having (what I think are) migraines lately and I'm curious if I'm becoming linguistically befuddled, or if this is just an obscure or archaic usage. Examples after the jump.

First instance (emphasis mine):


Now I'm writing this sort of squatting with my bottom braced up against the hangar's west wall, which wall is white-painted cinder blocks, like a budget motel's wall, and also oddly clammy.


At first I thought it was a typo. I mentally rewrote the sentence as:


Now I'm writing this sort of squatting with my bottom braced up against the hangar's west wall, which is white-painted cinder block, like a budget motel's wall, and also oddly clammy.


And I'm assuming that doesn't change the meaning.

Second instance:

And as Inga and Geli of Hospitality walk me on and in (and it's an endless walk -- up, fore, aft, serpentine through bulkheads and steel-railed corridors with mollified jazz out of little round speakers in a beige enamel ceiling I could reach an elbow up and touch), the whole three hour pre-cruise gestalt of shame and explanation and Why Are You Here is transposed utterly, because at intervals on every wall are elaborate cross-section maps and diagrams, each with a big and reassuringly jolly red dot with YOU ARE HERE, which assertion preempts all inquiry and signals that explanations and doubt and guilt are now left back there with all else we're leaving behind, handing over to pros.


So am I losing it, or is this weird? Can anyone point to other examples? Is my title grammatically correct?
posted by phrontist to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't find it weird - I've read it often in various places (I was a history major), although generally not in contemporary non-academic writing.
posted by rtha at 1:52 PM on April 20, 2009


No, that's correct. I've seen it a bunch. I can't give you a citation, but it doesn't even make me blink when I come across it.

I would think that its use would be more useful if said wall was referred to earlier in your sample sentence, so that the phrase "which wall" kind of reminds you that it is a particular wall, previously referred to, that is in question.
posted by Aquaman at 1:53 PM on April 20, 2009


Think of it like this:

Now I'm writing this sort of squatting with my bottom braced up against the hangar's west wall, which (the wall) is white-painted cinder blocks, like a budget motel's wall, and also oddly clammy.

He does this to clarify that it's not his bottom which is white-painted cinder blocks. Yes, it's grammatically correct. Yes, it's unusual.
posted by ewiar at 1:54 PM on April 20, 2009


It is a rather formal and slightly archaic but not uncommon construction. Writers use it to impart a highbrow or erudite tone. Unfortunately, I can't think of other examples, since it seems perfectly ordinary to me. I am sure I've read it hundreds of times, if not more.
posted by kindall at 1:55 PM on April 20, 2009


which, in this sense, is in the OED as: "6. adj. The ordinary relative adj." The last two citations are:
1800 WORDSW. Hart-Leap Well, The monuments spoken of in the second Part of the following Poem, which monuments do now exist as I have there described them. 1831 CARLYLE Sart. Res. I. i, Concerning which last, indeed. 1892 Photogr. Ann. II. 883 A 5 × 4 camera..(which size is now the most popular).
It doesn't occur to me that this usage is obsolete, obscure, or remarkably unusual, but, then again, my wife accuses me of being a time-traveller on the basis of my diction.
posted by Zed at 1:56 PM on April 20, 2009


Answers:

1. Maybe
2. A bit archaic, not weird, and correct.
3. No, but I have seen this around.
4. No your title is not an example of this, it could have said:

And so I found myself asking on Metafilter for some sort of reassurance, which comfort would be, let's face it, of diminishing return to someone who has been possessed by the vengeful and nitpicky spirit of a Languagehat.

posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:58 PM on April 20, 2009


I have seen it a lot too, in formal writing. It was weird the first time I read it, but I'm used to it now.

It enhances "which" in situations where you need to refer to something earlier, but if you had just used "which" without qualifying it further, it wouldn't be clear. So like Aquaman said, it is rather unnecessary in the first example. I think it enhances the second example very well, though, by relabeling "YOU ARE HERE" as an assertion.
posted by relucent at 2:02 PM on April 20, 2009


I can't think of any examples because I don't note it mentally when I read usage like this; it's a little stilted but not particularly unusual.

And no, your title is a little off. On preview, exactly what Potomac Avenue said. You're kind of missing a referent.
posted by penduluum at 2:05 PM on April 20, 2009


As others have said, it's older. You could probably always reverse the order if it confuses you -- "a wall which..." instead of "which wall...".
posted by creasy boy at 2:15 PM on April 20, 2009


There's a language log post on this very topic! Featuring fancy words like relative determinative.
posted by soma lkzx at 2:16 PM on April 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


It's not uncommon in legal writing and is sometimes used instead of "said" or (worse) "the said".

So:

The premises shall consist of four walls, which walls shall be painted white.

The premises shall consist of four walls. Said walls shall be painted white and shall be festooned with stars.

The premises shall consist of four walls. The said walls (ugh!) shall be painted in zebra stripes and imprinted with polka dots, which polka dots shall be no larger than three, and no smaller than two, inches in diameter.
posted by The Bellman at 2:17 PM on April 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think it's entirely possible that you haven't encountered this construction before; it's a little rare.
posted by amtho at 2:21 PM on April 20, 2009


My God, that (third) Merriam-Webster definition is the most convoluted piece of insane linguistics-ery I've seen since college:

used as a function word to introduce a nonrestrictive relative clause and to modify a noun in that clause and to refer together with that noun to a word or word group in a preceding clause or to an entire preceding clause or sentence or longer unit of discourse
posted by ORthey at 2:21 PM on April 20, 2009


In David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again he uses the word ___ in a way that I found unusual...

This is part of why one reads David Foster Wallace.
posted by neuron at 2:25 PM on April 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


IIRC, Mary Karr uses it all over the place in her memoir Cherry.
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:37 PM on April 20, 2009


Oooh, if you go to that link and search the text of the book for the word "which," you'll find examples, e.g. pages 7, 17, 29.
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:41 PM on April 20, 2009


Among other virtues, that usage has the benefit of preventing dangling modifiers.
posted by decathecting at 2:42 PM on April 20, 2009


How about just a really simple DFW-grammar-filter answer for all who have come before and those who shall ask again:

1. DFW's right, you're wrong.
2. If you think he's wrong, you're wrong. He's right.
3. If you know he's wrong, he's doing it intentionally.
posted by one_bean at 2:44 PM on April 20, 2009 [15 favorites]


You know how "whom" exists to clarify that you aren't asking "who?", but telling?
"Which __X" also acts to clarify what you're taliing about when adding a modifier.

"A weasel, a badger, and a duck walk into a bar, which bar was named the BigBoy." -
the which is there to precent confusion about what is named BigBoy.

It's about as archaic (in terms of modern usage, rather than proper grammar) as using whom.

But it's one of the ways to prevent sentences like "She walked in carrying a book wearing a skirt." Wait - the book had a skirt on it, or she did?
posted by bartleby at 2:53 PM on April 20, 2009


nueron & one_bean have both nailed the answers to this question.
posted by torquemaniac at 2:59 PM on April 20, 2009


So like Aquaman said, it is rather unnecessary in the first example.

Except you might become confused that it is his bottom which is "white painted cinder block", if it weren't specified. The purpose of the construction is to distinguish exactly what the clause is modifying. No doubt that's why it appeals to lawyers.

I would say it is reasonably common, but very possibly more common in older writing, and that it probably depends what you usually read whether this is something you're forgetting you already knew, or something you haven't come across much. I'd bet it's more common among contemporary British writers than American, for instance. It's the sort of usage that might sound a little pretentious if used at the wrong time/ in the wrong way.
posted by mdn at 3:02 PM on April 20, 2009


I'm reading In the Name of the Rose now, and Eco does this on occasion, affected though it is.
posted by klangklangston at 3:47 PM on April 20, 2009


CANTERBURY. Then hear me, gracious sovereign, and you peers,
That owe yourselves, your lives, and services,
To this imperial throne. There is no bar
To make against your Highness’ claim to France
But this, which they produce from Pharamond:
‘In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant’-
‘No woman shall succeed in Salique land’;
Which Salique land the French unjustly gloze
To be the realm of France, and Pharamond
The founder of this law and female bar.
(Henry V, Act I Sc ii.)
posted by Kinbote at 4:32 PM on April 20, 2009


The language log post linked above by soma lkzx is very informative. My take - yes, slightly fusty and uncommon, but not as uncommon in legal documents (which I'm familiar with).

I'm reading In the Name of the Rose now, and Eco does this on occasion, affected though it is.

I'd guess this is a choice made by Eco's translator, William Weaver - though I'd be interested to know what the original Italian was like.
posted by chinston at 4:58 PM on April 20, 2009


Wait, The Bellman...what's wrong with "the said?"
posted by Pomo at 6:01 PM on April 20, 2009


You know how "whom" exists to clarify that you aren't asking "who?", but telling?

Nope. "Who" is the nominative case of the relative/interrogative personal pronoun, "whom" is the objective case; both forms can be used for either asking or telling.

Who saw you?
Whom did you see?
...the person who saw me...
...the person whom I saw...

I think "whom" would be a little more familiar to most English-speakers than the "which X" construction, if only because high school English teachers spend so much time trying (usually without success) to drive the who/whom distinction through our thick skulls.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 6:41 PM on April 20, 2009


Yeah, bartleby, you're wrong here.

But back to the question: yeah, Wallace was right, if precious and self-conscious as ever.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:56 PM on April 20, 2009


God, I've used the "which" thing before. I feel like such a nerd now.
posted by JHarris at 11:01 AM on April 29, 2009


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