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The sad decline of “which”

May 30, 2016

I’m marking a seemingly endless pile of undergraduate essays for the Open University right now. When you mark that many essays you start to notice patterns: tricks of expression, style or grammar which regularly recur. One I’m noticing right now is the sad decline of the word which. People seem to prefer the word this, and believe that it does the same job. Thus they might say something like: “The railway network grew rapidly in the 1840s, this allowed working-class people to take seaside holidays for the first time.” Here is of course our old foe the comma splice; but what is the reason for the comma splice? I think it’s that people think there’s a grammatical connection between the first and second parts of that “sentence”. In other words, the problem isn’t so much that they don’t understand how to use commas, but rather that they don’t understanding how to use this. They think this is a relative pronoun. That interpretation is strengthened by the fact that the word which seldom or never appears in the essays of people who do this.

I should say that this error only appears in the essays of less able students. But it is certainly becoming more common. I wonder if we are seeing the beginnings of a general change in which this will expand its role and which will gradually shrivel away?

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