Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

On Relative Which with Personal Reference. (Linguistics)

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

On Relative Which with Personal Reference. (Linguistics)

Article excerpt

1. Problem

It frequently happens that one's belief in the relatively stable character of the English grammatical system receives a jolt, sufficiently often, indeed, for one to risk losing faith in that property of the language altogether. When for example a spokesman for the US State Department says:

(1) General Lebed would be a much more difficult partner with which to deal. (1)

or when Tony Blair says

(2) These refugees, which you have seen here in America, ... (2)

the simple rule that relative which is used with nonpersonal reference in English does not seem to apply across the board. According to traditional rules of grammar one would have expected both gentlemen to say who(m) rather than which. While it is true that relative that and relative zero can replace both who and which in restrictive clauses:

the man who(m) you saw vs. the man that/[empty set] you saw

the book which you read vs. the book that/[empty set] you read

relative who and which cannot normally replace each other:

the man who(m) you saw vs. *the man which you saw

the book which you read vs. *the book who(m) you read

Who and which both occur in restrictive as well as nonrestrictive clauses, with personal reference as the main distinguishing factor. (3) Why then, to come back to our two speakers, both speaking an educated kind of modem English, did they say which instead of who(m)? Mair (1998) is an interesting paper in this area. Mair shies away from "even a partially exhaustive analysis of the material". His strategy (1998: 126) is "to look for combinations of frequent nouns denoting humans followed by which and to spot-check for sequences such as of which there [is / are]". He asks whether the use of which with a human antecedent should be seen as evidence of a linguistic change in progress, but concludes that it is not. From a more general point of view, the matter could be worth a short study with a slightly different approach. (4)

Relative clauses can of course be introduced by other items than the ones mentioned above, such as the nominal what, whoever, etc., but for our present purpose we shall focus on which with personal reference (and only touch in passing on the contrasting case of who with nonpersonal reference). To look into the question we shall make use of material from the Cobuild Corpus, consisting of 56 million words from the Bank of English. This is a tempting thing to do, as even a brief look at the corpus material seems to suggest that the demarcation of the which area is somewhat fuzzy in that the antecedents that take which, far from being uniformly nonpersonal, seem possible to range along a continuum stretching from nonpersonal to personal. In the following we shall take a look at different types of relative which constructions in order, first, to see if we in fact have to do with a scale phenomenon and secondly, if the answer is yes, attempt to characterise the factors that determine the position of the various cat egories on that scale. It is hoped that the outcome will reveal some general governing principles.

2. Ambiguity evaded

"Concord is on the basis of a two-term 'gender' system, personal and nonpersonal", say Quirk et al. (1985: 1245) with reference to the relative sphere, and the distinction between personal and nonpersonal reference can be seen to have great functional advantages. It is often unclear which out of a number of preceding elements, mostly noun phrases, is the intended antecedent of a relative clause. For instance, in sentences like

They invited John and his son who they had just happened to meet.


She noticed the lining of his coat which was torn and dirty.

one cannot tell whether the antecedent is John and his son or just his son in the first sentence, and the lining of his coat or just his coat in the second. Such ambiguous cases are highly frequent and can occasionally be embarrassing and/or misleading. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.