Writing tip: Watch the wicked 'which'

Writing tip: Watch that wicked 'which'
A sentence containing the word which can have correct grammar and yet still be hopelessly unclear. Run a safety check every time you use which in mid-sentence, referring to something earlier in the sentence. You may know what you mean, but does your reader?

The following sentence is an example:
The janitor revised the nursing manual, which confused everyone.

Whatever which refers to is the thing that confused everyone.
So, OK, what confused everyone?

(A) The nursing manual?
The janitor revised the nursing manual, which confused everyone.

(B) The fact that the nursing manual was revised?
The janitor revised the nursing manual, which confused everyone.

(C) Or the fact that the janitor was the person who revised it?
The janitor revised the nursing manual, which confused everyone.

The grammatical correctness of such sentences is not worth arguing over, because you can't win. There's no glory in being correct if the meaning is not clear. And I have no idea what that sentence means.

What to do, when you find you have written an ambiguous which sentence? Start afresh. Think what you really intended to communicate, and write a sentence or two that makes your meaning crystal clear.

Some possibilities follow.

  • The janitor revised the confusing nursing manual.
  • The nursing manual that confused everyone was revised by the janitor.
  • The nursing manual confused everyone, so the janitor revised it.
  • Everyone was confused when the nursing manual was revised, because they had been using it for 10 years.
  • Everyone was confused when the janitor revised the nursing manual, because he had no nursing qualifications.

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

Author



Leave a comment

Comments have to be approved before showing up.