Wednesday, July 06, 2005

“Which” as a coordinating conjunction

In an article in the journal Babel on translation of the Qu’ran, I came across this instance of “which” as a coordinator (rather than a subordinator):

The use of the simple present instead of ‘used to’ means that the semantic quality, which the translator must strive to make sure that the message remains clear in the target text, is deteriorated.

(To make this sentence Standard English, a revision would be needed to this effect:

The use of the simple present instead of ‘used to’ means that the semantic quality, which the translator must strive to make sure is preserved in the target text, is deteriorated.

For that matter, “deteriorate” is seldom passive, so “deteriorates” suffices.)

English appears to be a second language for the author of this article, but using “which” as a coordinating conjunction is also practiced by native speakers of English, including my wife and me. My wife may refer to an upcoming event, and add, “... which, by the way, we have to decide if we are going.” (The standard construction, though rather awkward, would be, “to which, by the way, we have to decide if we are going.”)

This unusual usage stuck with me ever since I read it a few years ago in a book by Paul Reiser (adapted from his stand-up routines). He qualified some of his jokes about women, which were based on his experiences in his marriage, by saying that they may only hold true “if you live with my wife, which, frankly, what are the chances of that?”

This usage is non-standard but by no means an error or accident. The coordinating “which” serves a unique function in English—it is the only word that by itself can convey “and regarding which” or “and as for that.” Replacing “which” in the above instances with the standard coordinator “and” loses the relationship between the clauses it connects.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 07/06 at 09:12 AM
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