Brandon Robshaw: English Usage #22

The demise of "which"

I received a letter from my optician which stated: "It is very important for patients over forty-five 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 they should 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, it 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. Which, I suppose, is fine.

Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.